Malawi stalked by AIDS

Posted: 26 April 2002

Author: Sam Mpasu

HIV/AIDS is decimating Malawi's population, with catastrophic results. The scourge is not just a personal tragedy or a health problem, but is a national development issue because of the social and economic problems it creates. Sam Mpasu reports.

Malawi, a small, landlocked country in south-eastern Africa, is often referred to as the warm heart of Africa, or as Africa's best-kept secret. Its 10 million inhabitants crowd onto the two-thirds of the land not covered by lakes, which boast some 200 species of rare tropical fish. Plateaux in the north teem with wildlife. And the people themselves are known for their warmth and friendliness. But silent death is stalking this idyllic setting. HIV/AIDS is decimating the population, with catastrophic results. Although Malawi is not heavily urbanised - and eight million of its 10 million inhabitants still live in the country-side, where they scratch a living with hand-held hoes as subsistence farmers - the HIV/AIDS scourge has left no one unaffected. Nation-wide, one million people are already infected with the virus. Some 70,000 of them develop full-blown AIDS each year.

Tuberculosis comeback

The country's health system is creaking under the enormous weight brought on by the virus. Patients suffering from HIV/AIDS-related illnesses occupy about 70 per cent of the nation's hospital beds. Opportunistic diseases, such as tuberculosis, that once were on the decline, have surged back with a vengeance. The early deaths of parents have saddled the country with an estimated 300,000 orphans, some of whom have no other family support system and are living on the streets. Their number grows by 70,000 every year.

As if this were not catastrophic enough for a developing country with a per capita income of only US$300, seeds of a future economic decline are being sown. In urban areas, up to 30 per cent of all pregnant women who go for antenatal services are found to be HIV-positive. The majority of those who are dying of this scourge are breadwinners, typically between the ages of 19 and 49. This raises the prospect of a large number of old people and young people without economic or social support. The average life-span has been drastically reduced to 48 years for women and 47 years for men.

Infected girls Among teenagers, the rate of infection is higher among girls than boys, probably because the girls go out with so-called sugar daddies, who shower them with money for sex. When these girls eventually get married to their own age-mates, the consequences are predictable. Some who have already succumbed to this scourge are the professionals who prop up the economy with their skills. Lawyers, doctors, teachers, civil servants and others cannot be replaced overnight. Political leaders are not spared either. Between 1994 and 1999, the Malawi Parliament lost 29 of its 177 legislators. Some of those deaths were due to AIDS-related illnesses.

For Malawi and Malawians, this scourge is not just a personal catastrophe for those affected and infected. It is not just a health problem either. It is a development issue because of the social and economic problems it creates.

The president, ministers and members of Parliament have led church leaders and non-govemrnental organisations in talking about this scourge. In public speeches, workshops, newspaper columns and radio broadcasts, messages on HIV/AIDS are being delivered, sometimes with uncharacteristic candour.

It is now ascertained that up to 95 per cent of the people in rural areas and 98 per cent of people in urban areas are aware of the existence and dangers of HIV/AIDS. The real challenge now is not lack of awareness, but translating this awareness into behavioural change. Saving lives means saving a small nation that is under the shadow of death.

Sarn Mpasu is Malawi's Speaker of Parliament. The above article first appeared in Global Future (Fourth Quarter 2001), published by World Vision.

Sources: Global Future (Fourth Quarter 2001), published by World Vision and Third World Network Features (No. 2273/01).