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AIDS takes a toll in African classrooms

by Cesar Chelala

Since physicians first described its symptoms almost 20 years ago, HIV has infected 53 million people, of which 19 million have died. Of the 34.3 million people now living with HIV/AIDS, 24.5 million are in sub-Saharan Africa, where the epidemic has left 11 million children orphaned.

Because the disease is claiming teachers in increasing numbers throughout the continent, the epidemic is having a devastating effect on students’ education, their future job possibilities and their quality of life. Limited access to education reduces possibilities for young adults to find work and be able to support themselves.

According to statistics, almost one-third of teachers in South Africa are HIV positive, a higher infection rate than in the general population. In Ivory Coast, a 1998 government study reported that six teachers died of AIDS each week, and the number has probably gone up since then. That country, which had long been one of the richest in the region, now has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in French-speaking Africa. The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS estimates that almost 11 percent of the adult population is HIV infected, and that 72,000 people died of AIDS in 1999. Private spending on education in the cities fell almost by half in households with someone with AIDS.

The figures are just as dismal in other countries. In Zambia, two teachers die for each graduate from training school. In the 10 months of 1998, 1,300 teachers died of AIDS. This is twice the number for 1999 and about two-thirds of the number of teachers trained annually. AIDS is reversing decades of slow improvement in child survival, life expectancy, educational progress and economic growth. In addition, AIDS has provoked a resurgence of tuberculosis after years of decline. In some places in Africa, the number of tuberculosis cases has gone up by 500 percent over pre-AIDS days.

Lack of education and cultural prejudice are serious drawbacks in the fight against AIDS. In many cases, the educators themselves are poorly informed or not informed at all. In a recent poll, 85 percent of South Africans said that they know how HIV is transmitted. However, only 10 percent said that they had used a condom in their last sexual encounter. In Africa, it’s not just men who are reluctant to use condoms. Women feel that men are questioning their virtue by using condoms, so they press the men to have sex without condoms.

Dr. Peter Piot, the executive director of UNAIDS, has called for a partnership with the education sector to save the lives of millions of people threatened by HIV, and help Africa in its efforts to achieve education for all. Speaking at the World Education Forum, he said, “AIDS constitutes one of the biggest crises and the biggest threats to the global education agenda that we have known . . . AIDS diminishes the supply of teachers, and with it, of course, the quality of education that is provided.”

Education can be a formidable weapon against AIDS. That in some countries teachers themselves are decimated by it indicates that new and more effective strategies have to be devised to educate them better and to make them more useful advocates against HIV infection. Only when that happens we will be able to have hope for controlling this scourge.