Friday, December 8, 2006

World AIDS Day

I'm a bit late, but in honor of World AIDS Day (which was December 1st), I wanted to write a bit about AIDS in Malawi.

An estimated 14% of Malawian adults are infected with HIV - the majority don't know their status. A recent study showed that while 70% of youth knew about AIDS and where to get tested, only 3% of them had actually done so.

As a result of the HIV epidemic, the life expectancy has dropped to 37 years. At the age when many of us in the U.S. are only just starting families and building a life, the women in Malawi are ending theirs. Still, there are many reasons for the short life expectancy - malaria, malnutrition, high maternal death. Despite this, whenever someone young (in the 30s or 40s) dies, many expats seem to assume that it was due to HIV. As one of my colleagues once told me, "we're not dropping like flies, you know."

There is incredible stigma attached to the illness here - villages are small communities, and everyone knows everyone else's business. As a result, many adults simply don't want to know. When we began referring mothers for voluntary HIV testing during nutritional services, some mothers simply stopped coming. Even the mention of HIV was enough to scare them off.

There are of course many reasons for the fast spread of HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa, but as a married woman, what always strikes me most are the views toward infidelity here. There seems to be a high level of acceptance, and most women are powerless to do anything about an unfaithful husband. There's an attitude in the country that if a man is away from his wife for long stretches (or if she doesn't put out, to put it bluntly), the man can't help himself.

In honor of World AIDS Day, we had a number of activities at our office, including dancers, drummers, and - of course - a bouncy castle. But very moving were the testimonials of people living with HIV - I was impressed with their courage and desire to help.


Aunt Alanna said...

I think I will let the UUs know of your Blog because the pictures and comments are so interesting. You write so very well, Gwyneth! It must be heartbreaking at times to grasp the cultural taboos and differences that block the transfer of critical information. But learning to do that well is something I hope you will write about in the future. Love to you both.

shutupproust said...

Hey, Gwyn, this is Joy's old highschool pal, H.F., here. Joy told me about your blog and I've been reading backward a little bit. It sounds like nonstop adventures for you, m'dear, but I'm glad to hear you're thriving and learning.

I wrote a big piece on the 25th anniversary of the first officially recorded AIDS case in my city recently; since a lot of doctors here are deeply involved in international work, I heard a fair amount about AIDS and HIV in the developing world, though my focus was very local. The statistics are just heart-breaking. I hope that the recent addition of Gates Foundation funding can help, but it does seem like an overwhelming problem.