Increase U.S. aid for foreign AIDS education

Most Americans only need to be lied to once by a political party to warrant suspicion for years. South Africans have been lied to, oppressed and denied education for centuries by foreign powers, so their distrust of foreign drugs should not surprise health officials.

On Sunday, the African National Congress, the dominant South African political party responsible for dismantling the apartheid system, circulated documents urging officials to restrict public access to anti-retroviral AIDS medication, arguing links between the HIV virus and AIDS are inconclusive and claiming drug companies market poisonous AIDS drugs in a belief South Africans can be “bought and terrorized.” Instead of dismissing this problem, the United States, charitable organizations and other countries should recognize and remedy the vast education inefficiency that facilitates these views.

In South Africa, which accounts for 71 percent of global HIV cases, ignorance stymies prevention efforts. It is commonly thought sex with a virgin will cure AIDS, for instance. Others don’t believe in AIDS at all, attributing death tolls to “chira,” a malady caused by breaking societal norms and cured with herb tea. More still, particularly prostitutes, believe transmission occurs only through vaginal sex and therefore unprotected anal sex is a safe alternative. Most troubling in light of these misconceptions is the average of fewer than 20 minutes per year devoted to HIV education in South African eighth-grade classes. Many blame AIDS deaths on expensive drugs; however, the German company Boehringer Ingelheim offers the drug Neviapine free to curb mother-child infection rates, and it is available in only two of nine provinces. One African health worker accurately cited the root of the epidemic: “Schools are very near. It is health centers that are far away.”

To surmount this plague-like AIDS spread, the United States needs to pioneer global AIDS education funding. One study estimates $2.5 billion annually is necessary to cut infections in half; this is 20 times the current figure. Although the United States cannot reach this sum alone, it can set precedent for other countries. In a bill proposed by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., $500 million dollars would be directed to the U.S. Agency for International Development’s HIV-AIDS program, and this amount included dollar-for-dollar contributions from the private sector. This particular program also allows flexibility to work with reluctant governments and politicians, such as the ANC, instead of simply providing drugs or health care workers.

American people need to support AIDS education funding. Life expectancy in South Africa has dropped to 1960 levels, and entire generations have already been decimated. Through education and prevention, South Africans could cut infection rates in half and eradicate centuries of death and disease brought on by ignorance.