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AIDS Now Worst Threat to Africa

August 30, 1987|Peter Bridges | Peter Bridges is a former U.S. ambassador to Somalia

WASHINGTON — Acquired immune deficiency syndrome has spread so fast in Africa that Western analysts are still scrambling to decide whether overpopulation still remains the huge cloud on Africa's horizon, or whether an AIDS pandemic may leave the continent severely under- populated before this century ends. AIDS has spread so fast that many, perhaps most, of the millions of Africans now infected have never heard of it. Intelligence analysts in Washington recently concluded that under-population will be the problem. This may seem a convenient conclusion for an Administration that argues against the need to support family planning and population control. Still, the forecast of an African pandemic is not only convenient but, sadly, sensible.

Statistics on AIDS in Africa are inadequate--and therefore misleading. A majority of AIDS cases reported to the World Health Organization still come from the United States but health officials believe Africa has more actual cases and more persons infected. In some regions enough is known to suggest a ghastly picture: As many as 25% of all adults in parts of Rwanda may have the AIDS virus. Estimates indicate that the capital of Uganda, Kampala, could lose half its population to AIDS in the next decade.

The majority of African victims seem to be heterosexual and not drug users. British researchers report that a high percentage of Africans possess a genetic variation that seems to leave them especially defenseless against the virus. But there are other reasons, too. Many African children are coming down with AIDS and many were given blood transfusions for malaria-caused anemia, only to get AIDS from contaminated blood or syringes. In addition, a year ago doctors were already reporting that 60% of all prostitutes in Kenya--and 90% in Rwanda--had the AIDS virus.

Yet AIDS in Africa does not remove the threat of overpopulation. Not all African countries are struck equally hard. Somalia, for example, remains more AIDS-free than neighboring Kenya. This could be because the Somalis frown on sexual promiscuity--and render it more difficult through the horrendous practice of female infibulation. Another reason may be genetic differences between the Somalis and the Bantu peoples farther south.

While AIDS may yet strike Somalia, for now the greater threat there is overpopulation, both of humans and grazing animals. Most Somalis don't see it that way. Some Somali leaders insist that it is good for a woman to bear 10 or 15 children, because the country has only 20 people per-square-mile and needs soldiers to defend its long borders. But even 20 people per-square-mile can be too many for the arid Horn of Africa. Superfluous humans pour steadily into the capital city of Mogadishu; it had about 75,000 people when independence came in 1960 and now contains well over a million, most with little or no work.

In the countryside, vegetation disappears at alarming rates. Acacia trees go for charcoal, the only fuel; goats and camels eat the rest. Regions described as nomads' Arcadia several decades ago are now desert. The Somalis' proud pastoral democracy has become a society dependent on foreign aid. And flying west across all Africa, one finds the same loss of trees, grass and soil, the same encroaching desert.

There are African leaders who understand these problems. President Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya--where the birth rate may be even higher than Somalia--has often warned that too many babies can eat up economic progress and Kenya has made notable progress. Some months ago Kenya television even pioneered a soap opera in Swahili pointing up the advantages of family planning. But how does one now balance the threat of overpopulation against the threat of AIDS? An African leader will ignore either threat at his country's peril.

A complicating factor has been the emotional overtones connected with AIDS, as loud in Africa as elsewhere. Africans resented their continent being labelled the birthplace of AIDS, or the implication that AIDS in Africa meant widespread homosexuality. Less than two years ago Kenya authorities seized 300 copies of the International Herald Tribune because it contained an article saying many African governments were reluctant to confirm the existence of AIDS in their countries. More recently, officials in the Central African Republic destroyed a French TV crew's film of AIDS victims in a Bangui hospital.

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