Angolan conflict exacerbates AIDS crisis

from Pan African News Agency
Published on 18 Jun 2002
By Rangarirai Shoko, PANA Correspondent
Luanda, Angola (PANA) - Emerging from three decades of civil war, Angola is up against an HIV/AIDS crisis largely exacerbated by the conflict, health experts and aids agencies point out.

"The pandemic is spreading fast, and in some cases threatens whole communities in all regions of Angola," says Haturo Silva, emergency and humanitarian director of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

He cites three principal reasons for the HIV/AIDS explosion in the southern African country: lack of knowledge as some communities were isolated and inaccessible for years because of war, widespread prostitution for livelihood, and the breakdown of family units, and with it values.

"This country has one of the lowest knowledge levels of AIDS in the world, and this is contributing to the spread of the disease," says Silva.

Officially, the number of HIV/AIDS sufferers in Angola stands at just 500,000, out of an estimated population of 12.5 million, but health experts say the figure is way too conservative.

For example, three years ago, WHO conducted a survey, limited though because of the war, and found 3.4 percent of the population to be living with HIV/AIDS. The figure has since shot up to 8.6 percent.

And in the capital Luanda alone, the UN estimates 5.1 percent of the city's four million inhabitants had HIV/AIDS, and the figure was fast climbing up.

Silva says lack of means of survival, even in cities like Luanda which were never seriously threatened by war, forced women and girls into prostitution, while in the theatre of the conflict in the hinterland, they were forced to exchange sex for food, mercy and other favours by the combatants.

Poverty in Angola is at 65 percent, of which 11 percent is absolute, which health experts say was a fertile ground for prostitution, and ultimately HIV/AIDS.

"Of the approximately four million displaced persons in Angola, 65 percent are under the age of 15 and women and children make up more than 80 percent of the total displaced population. Displaced women and girls are particularly vulnerable to the effects of violence and poverty," says Save the Children-UK in a report.

"The absence of policies to address the needs of vulnerable women and girls increases risks of new threats, including HIV/AIDS," it adds.

International aid agencies warn time is fast running out in the war against HIV/AIDS in Angola, which was reduced to one of the poorest countries in the world by war.

The war ended in April after the government signed a peace agreement with the UNITA rebel group, following the death of its leader Jonas Savimbi.

"The AIDS situation is serious, and could spill out of control if nothing is done urgently to address it, especially in the form of education," says Diakanga Pedro of Care International.

He says condom use, even among the high-risk groups such as prostitutes, was low in Angola, and blamed this on lack of HIV/AIDS awareness programmes.

Indeed, while in most cities in Africa and other developing countries billboards warning people of the dangers of AIDS are dotted all over, in Luanda these are few and far in between, showing the casual approach, so far, the authorities take in dealing with the incurable disease.

But international aid agencies are taking the lead in changing both the government's and people's attitude towards HIV/AIDS, to save Angola from being embroiled in another human catastrophe, after the war.

WHO, UNICEF, Save the Children - UK, among other international aid agencies, are starting multi-pronged programmes throughout the country to slow down the HIV infection rates, which are soaring.

This includes distributing condoms to high-risk groups and communities around the country, as well as, for the first time to some Angolans, conducting HIV/AIDS awareness education programmes. Other schemes include how to care for HIV/AIDS patients in a home environment.

"We want to intervene quickly, particularly in the area of education, to fight AIDS. This will be done in collaboration with our cooperating partners, and we are happy the government now sees this as a priority," says Silva.

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