Uganda, once the country with the highest AIDS rate in Africa, has been waging a successful campaign against this insidious disease. Sabine Ludwig reports. The text is reprinted from the journal “Kommunikation Global”, Volume II, No. 22, p. 33. The author is a freelance journalist.
Uganda’s Exemplary Fight against AIDS
Uganda has been successfully combating AIDS since 1987. The number of people infected has fallen from 35 per cent at the outset to around 6.5 per cent. This rapid decline merits respect, and not only on the African continent. The country which once had the highest rate of AIDS in the whole of Africa has demonstrated what it can achieve. It has become an exemplary model for the rest of Black Africa.
According to Joseph Otim, who has been an adviser to President Yoweri Museveni since 1994, AIDS is regarded by the Government as a serious and dangerous disease. Not only does AIDS kill many members of families and of the labour force, orphan innumerable children and undermine the country’s economy and productivity, but it is also a threat to an adequate food supply.
John Joseph Otim, aged 60, married, 7 children
Master’s degree in agriculture and animal husbandry
Ph.D . in food science and animal husbandry
Professor at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda and at the University of Nairobi, Kenya
Member of Parliament
Minister of Animal Husbandry and Fishery: 1980-1985
Presidential adviser since 1994
The Government has therefore decided on an aggressive well-publicised policy. An AIDS Commission has been set up within the Ministry of Health to maintain a national network. All campaigns, awareness activities and information about the fatal disease are checked thoroughly by this Commission. It is only then that they are made public via the media such as radio, television and newspapers, and via community and religious leaders.
On television, there is a quiz with music videos. The young host asks questions about the issue, which viewers can answer by telephone. The prizes for winners are not radio sets or CDs, but condoms, major prizes being ten packets at once. Theatre companies tour the country constantly bringing home the message about AIDS. They perform on stages set up on the backs of lorries and demonstrate the correct use of condoms using wooden penises. Sometimes the audience is abashed, and sometimes amused. But something always remains of the message that the disease is a killer and that infection can be prevented with the requisite knowledge.
Leading politicians provide crucial support. President Museveni has spoken out in public about sex and AIDS in recent years as often as any head of state. Otim also points out how important it is for sufferers to receive treatment and care. The taboo about AIDS must be broken. The aim is to persuade the population to accept sufferers and to give them the will to live. This is the only way in the long term of dealing with this deadly disease. Assistance and advice from medical specialists are extremely important, since they can explain clearly how the disease is transmitted and can show that AIDS is not infectious if handled correctly.
There is still the problem of the cost of medication. Otim places considerable hope in a fund being set up by the European Union and the United States to make grants available so that AIDS medicines come within the reach of the Third World. The campaign, which has now lasted almost 15 years, is funded out of the national budget from tax revenues and from support by international donors. “We still urgently need additional financial help”, Otim adds. But what were the causes of the rapid and terrible rise in AIDS in Uganda? “It was not until after the war of liberation against the terror regime of Idi Amin that isolated cases came to light,” Otim states. Irregular Ugandan troops trained in Tanzania, together with Tanzanian forces, eventually succeeded in overthrowing the dictator in 1979. And it was among these soldiers that the AIDS virus subsequently first appeared. “But it is still not clear where and how these people were infected.”
Even after the successes of recent years Uganda cannot relax, however. The politicians continually stress that “we must go on”, in the hope that Uganda will remain the exemplary model.