HIV/AIDS in Botswana

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Botswana's Epidemic

Botswana is in the grip of one of the most serious HIV/AIDS epidemic in the world. Nearly 40% of its people now have the virus and its president Festus Mogae believes “We are threatened with extinction.”

But this is one African country that’s taking the problem seriously. It’s well aware of the virus’s devastating impact on the economy - although compared to a lot of other African nations it’s still fairly prosperous thanks to its diamond mines.

Botswana knows that if the problem is not properly addressed the country could lose a third of its population – and that’s a third of a potential workforce – by the end of the decade.

In a country of just 1.6 million, around 350,000 people have the virus. The average life expectancy is just 39 and there are more than 60,000 known orphans – the true figure could be even higher.

Botswana had its first taste of AIDS back in 1985 when, like the rest of the world, it regarded it as a disease that only affected homosexual westerners and poor African countries.

Nowadays the majority infected are women and the cause is mainly heterosexual sex. Even in more developed African countries such as Botswana, women still have a very lowly place and sexual violence is rife. Women are afraid to insist their partner wears a condom and few dare to raise the issue of fidelity.

It’s a migratory population and the men go off for months to work in the diamond mines. And of course wherever there’s a high concentration of men away from home, there are sex workers desperate to earn any money.

But thanks to an enlightened government there are many initiatives and education programs springing up in Botswana.

Initially efforts were concentrated on blood screening to prevent transmission during transfusions. Then came information about the virus and public education programs aimed at preventing it.

Confronting The HIV Epidemic in Botswana

It’s only really over the last five years that the Botswana has really started to tackle the crisis. Back in 2002 this became the first African country to provide anti-HIV drugs on a large scale. This in itself hasn’t been without its problems. Lack of infrastructure and finance has plagued the project known as MASA (the Setwana word for “new dawn”). So far around 18,000 of an estimated 110,000 infected people are receiving the drugs.

Growing partnerships between cash cow organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Merck Company Foundation have led to the donation of antiretroviral drugs and millions of dollars worth of funding for prevention programmes, healthcare access and the treatment of the disease.

Currently the country is swamped with posters based on the ABC message – meaning Abstain, Be faithful and if you have sex Condomize. The government supports the Youth Health Organisation which goes into schools to demystify and destigmatise AIDS and break down cultural beliefs about sex.

Condom distribution has been successful. Both male and female condoms have been launched and promoted in a variety of places including the workplace, bars, schools and shops.

The US Centres for Disease Control is working with the government to produce education materials and counselors to support the prevention of mother to child HIV transmission. The number of women enrolling in these programs has increased over the past few years.

Voluntary testing with same day results is also being promoted.

So the country is on the right track but only time will tell if the initiatives are enough to curb the current epidemic.


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