Dakar — The United Nations says Senegal leads Africa in combating AIDS on the continent and is one of only three nations worldwide to successfully contain the pandemic. In the week that the UN is holding its first ever Special Session on HIV/AIDS at headquarters in New York, allAfrica.com's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, focuses on Senegal with a series of special reports on the country's battle against HIV/AIDS.
In the fight against HIV/AIDS, Senegal stands out as a beacon of hope on a continent ravaged by the syndrome. With an HIV prevalence rate of about one per cent among adults, compared with 36 per cent in Botswana and about 20 per cent in South Africa, the authorities in Senegal know they have made progress and are proud of the fact.
Their success is recognised by the United Nations which hails Senegal, the Philippines and Thailand, as well as Uganda, as countries which have done the most to combat HIV/AIDS. But President Abdoulaye Wade says this is no reason for his country to "rest on its laurels", because the threat of AIDS remains a reality: "In terms of fighting the disease, Senegal has the best results in Africa, but the battle is not over."
Wade and Senegalese AIDS' experts, some of whom rank among the most experienced in the world, point to an early 'awareness and prevention' campaign, sex education, an active government policy which dates back to the late 1980s, and political will to explain the low rate of HIV/AIDS in Senegal. The first cases of AIDS were identified in Senegal in 1986. By 1987, the government had a national blood screening programme in place.
On the contentious issue of expensive anti-retroviral drugs, and their inaccessibility to most people in Africa, Senegal was the first country on the continent to negotiate a 90 percent cut in the price of AIDS drugs from the multinational pharmaceutical companies. About one hundred AIDS' sufferers throughout Senegal are currently on a regime of anti-retroviral medication, under a government health scheme that the authorities say will be expanded gradually throughout the country.
Social factors, including religion, have also helped the authorities keep HIV/AIDS at a manageable level. The country is 90 per cent Muslim and although AIDS and talk of the syndrome remain taboo in the more conservative quarters of Senegalese society, some Imams (religious leaders) now broach the subject of AIDS and condoms when they lead prayers in the mosques on Fridays. One Imam in the capital Dakar told allAfrica.com that he preaches abstinence first, but does not discourage the use of condoms because, he knows this form of protection may save lives.
However, Imams and health workers acknowledge that they have difficulty convincing some Senegalese that AIDS is not a curse from God for human lapses on earth. Mabeye, a 41 year old former sugar factory worker from the northern Senegalese city of St Louis, was diagnosed HIV positive in 1997 after unprotected sex with a lady friend he knew only slightly. "Because of this one chance encounter, this one slip, perhaps I was punished by God," he told allAfrica.com. Mabeye felt he could not discuss his dilemma with his Imam, because the question of AIDS was "too sensitive, private and taboo".
President Wade has warned his compatriots that they must help break the silence and dispel any myth surrounding AIDS. He told journalists: "If we succeed in inculcating the notion in the mind of every single Senegalese, that they must not transmit the disease, or be the cause of the loss of other people's lives in any way, then we would have taken a significant step forward." Wade added that it was "all about education, about information... through the medium of meetings. And the most important element is the youth and women."
In conclusion, Wade said his message to the Senegalese was, "beware of the dangers, find solutions, change our behaviour and encourage everyone to go for HIV tests."
In April, in the Nigerian capital Abuja, African leaders declared war on AIDS and a "state of emergency in the continent", resolving to "place the fight against HIV/AIDS at the forefront and as the highest priority issue in our respective national development plans". They pledged to "lead from the front the battle against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and other related infectious diseases."
Some of those leaders, who are now losing among the most productive generations in their population to AIDS, may wish they had made that promise earlier, and followed the lead of Senegal and Uganda which recognised the threat and danger HIV/AIDS posed to their countries. Both accepted the challenge head-on and took action. Although their achievements are not perfect, the authorities in Kampala and Dakar know they have tried to help their people.
Zephirin Diabre, the deputy head of the United Nations' Development Programme (UNDP), summed up the record of the Senegalese when he told journalists: "What they have done proves that where there is a will to achieve, it can work."
Other articles in the series: