Botswana: An African Success Story In The Fight Against AIDS

on Wednesday, Jun. 29th

The southern African nation of Botswana has one of the world’s highest rates of HIV infection and yet is also widely considered one of the big success stories in the fight against AIDS. On Tuesday, at a Seattle event sponsored by the World Affairs Council, former Botswanan President Festus Gontebanye Mogae spoke and took questions from an audience of several hundred people at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center.

Mogae began his remarks by recalling when AIDS was first recognized in some central African countries and was largely ignored as another one of those “mysterious diseases” that afflict or kill a few people, attract some scientists and media attention and then just as mysteriously ebb away.

Not this time. Botswana would soon have (and still does have) one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. At the peak of the pandemic, nearly 40 percent of Botswana’a adult population was infected. That’s come down some, but today still one of every four Botswanans between the ages of 15-49 is estimated to carry HIV. “We didn’t know what hit us,” Mogae said. “We were faced with the possibility of extinction.” It’s important to recognize that prior to AIDS, Botswana had been one of Africa’s brightest hopes. Its economy had been been improving, stable and responsible governance was the norm and life expectancy for for men and women had been about 65 years old. With AIDS, average life expectancy fell to about 40 years old. The same thing was happening in neighboring South Africa, which as a larger nation had a lower overall percentage of its population infected but a much greater total number of people with HIV and AIDS. South African President Thabo Mbeki wasn’t helping matters by questioning whether or not HIV was the cause of AIDS. Mogae became President of Botswana in 1998, after new anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs had been discovered that could prevent AIDS in HIV-infected people. But the drugs were considered too expensive and complicated to manage for poor parts of Africa. “I remember people saying you can’t treat Africans (with the drugs) because they don’t have watches,” said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash, who moderated Mogae’s Q7A last night at Bell Harbor. “Many said it was irresponsible to even talk about treatment for Africa,” said Mogae. The thinking, he said, was that even considering it raised unreasonable expectations that would only inflame this massive tragedy.

For more, visit KPLU’s Humanosphere.

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