Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Health Care Crisis in Africa

Science and the human heart
There is no limit
There is no failure here sweetheart
Just when you quit

- From the song "Miracle Drug" by U2

The Health Care Crisis in Africa

Are you aware that most Liberians are living off 50 cents a day? Former President Jimmy Carter said at Emory University last night that Liberia and other African countries suffering from major diseases need far more medical attention than they can afford. He told the students that providing shelter, clothing and food on less than two dollars a day -- not to mention health care. He cited the growing economic gap between rich and poor as a major cause of problems throughout the world and encouraged the students to become active as agents of social change.

Next week in New York City, the Clinton Global Initiative will hold its second annual conference with former President Clinton, first lady Laura Bush, Liberia's president, and many other world leaders and experts to set new goals for alleviating global poverty (Senator John Edwards and Dr. Jeffrey Sachs have made this a policy priority), achieving success in assisting all nations with health care issues (for which Senator Hillary Clinton and former President George H.W. Bush have offered much public support), mitigating religious and ethnic conflict (George Clooney and Elie Wiesel's appearance today at the UN Security Council on the issue of Darfur is just one example of involvement on this issue), and creating the way forward on energy and climate change (as former Vice President Al Gore has made a focus).

I am particularly supportive of the alleviation of global poverty and I am especially concerned - deeply so - about ending senseless, preventable HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths around the world. My faith calls me to reach out. My political passion calls me to inform others about what is happening over the horizon - on other shores beyond the limit of their sight...and what they can do to help their fellow human beings. There's no limit to science and the human heart and we will only fail when we stop paying attention - or lose hope - or stop trying.

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is doing her best to keep her fragile nation stable so that her people can survive, but she has recently disclosed that she fears that some individuals are bent on undermining her government. She made recent American news when she got an uplifting and melodious sendoff after a visit to Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Since taking office in January, President Johnson Sirleaf has carried a similar message of uplift with her on international visits, trying to drum up investment in a nation that’s in tatters after a 14 year civil war. [source: AP] Some three million people live in Liberia, but after a decade and a half of warfare there are only 34 government doctors catering for their healthcare needs. Fighting has destroyed 95 percent of Liberia's healthcare facilities and the number of trained government doctors in the country dropped from 400 to less then 20 at the civil war's end in 2003, according Liberia's National Human Development Report released recently. [source: IRIN]

President Johnson Sirleaf had been scheduled to speak as a representative of her continent at last month's 16th annual AIDS conference held in Toronto, but she had to cancel her scheduled talk a week before the conference. Scant information on HIV prevalence has been available for Liberia. In 1999, it was believed that 50,000 Liberians were HIV positive. In 1993, the official number was 200,000. Today it's estimated that 3.2% of Liberians are HIV positive. In Nimba county, Liberia, doctors are seeing full blown cases of AIDS but there is nothing they say that they can do for them. They can’t test them to see if they have AIDS since the nearest testing facility is a 14-hour drive away.

Liberia, which lies on the northwest coast of Africa, has more than its share of health care crises and limited resources to control them. The country is unlikely to meet most of its Millennium Development Goals regarding health. South Africa, however has the largest number of H.I.V.-positive citizens in Africa. Recent reports indicate that the death rate among women aged 30 to 34 has become 4.6 times as high as it was seven years earlier and that the death rate among men aged 40 to 44 more than doubled.

Video by Ben Werschkul, photos by Joao Silva for NYT

In a Lesotho village, a mother waits with many others in a clinic waiting room so her child may be seen by the one specialist who has come from far away to work in her village. Go to this NYT address and watch a video titled: Video Feature: AIDS Care in Africa.

CNN's Christiane Amanpour has been reporting on the effect of the AIDS crisis upon children in Africa. She says that, when it comes to the children, the world has failed dismally. According to the United Nations, there are 12 million AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa alone, and in four short years that number will skyrocket to 18.4 million. That means AIDS orphans will make up 15 to 20 percent of the population in some African countries. Children, many who have been infected with the HIV virus from birth, have to watch their parents dying of AIDS.

There are as many as one million AIDS orphans in Kenya alone, and grandmothers are often the only ones left to care for the children. Grandmothers, many living in poverty themselves, struggle to find enough food for these orphaned grandchildren. Ms. Amanpour gives an example of the Stara Rescue School in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, where of the 470 children in the school, approximately 70 percent are AIDS orphans. [source: CNN]

The Stephen Lewis Foundation of Toronto, Canada recently conducted a highly successful grass-roots gathering of about 300 African and Canadian grandmothers. African grandmothers who have lost children to AIDS and are now caring for their grandchildren described their lives to Canadian grandmothers (very few of whom are dealing with AIDS in their immediate families). *Stephen Lewis is the United Nations' special envoy for AIDS in Africa. [source: NYT]

A simple fact that can make a world of difference in stopping the spread of the HIV virus: In the 10 years since the introduction of some highly effective drug cocktails, 20 million people have become infected, and most do not know it because they are not offered H.I.V. tests.