AIDS in Africa

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This page last updated

One conflict in Africa that has taken a long time to get appropriate media attention, with regards to its severity, is that of the conflict of ordinary African people against HIV and AIDS.

On this page:

  1. The Impact of AIDS in Africa
  2. Lack of Action by Some African Leaders
  3. Action by other African Leaders
  4. Global funds help, global financial crisis hinders
  5. Belated International/Western Media Attention to AIDS in Africa
  6. Western Pharmaceutical Companies’ Reaction to AIDS in Africa
  7. Impact of Poverty on AIDS in Africa
  8. For more information on AIDS in general:

The Impact of AIDS in Africa

Between 1999 and 2000 more people died of AIDS in Africa than in all the wars on the continent, as mentioned by the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan1.

The death toll is expected to have a severe impact on many economies in the region. In some nations, it is already being felt. Life expectancies in some nations is already decreasing rapidly, while mortality rates are increasing.

[2000] began with 24 million Africans infected with the virus. In the absence of a medical miracle, nearly all will die before 2010. Each day, 6,000 Africans die from AIDS. Each day, an additional 11,000 are infected.

Lester R. Brown, HIV Epidemic Restructuring Africa’s Population2, World Watch Issue Alert, 31 October 2000

UNAIDS estimates3 for 2008 (which are latest figures available) there were roughly:

  • 33.4 million living with HIV
  • 2.7 million new infections of HIV
  • 2 million deaths from AIDS
  • Approximately 7 out of 10 deaths for 2008 were in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that also has over two-thirds of adult HIV cases and over 90% of new HIV infections amongst children.

AIDS affects different segments of society in different ways. For example, children may have to care for an ill parent. Schooling may suffer as a result. Other times, children become orphans as parents succumb to AIDS. If they are lucky, children may have grandparents or relatives to help who then face the burden of raising many children, as the London-based organization, Panos, highlights:

Panos London, Growing pains; Poverty, AIDS and challenges to childhood4, August 1, 2008

AIDS is exacerbated by other conditions such as TB. Addressing TB and HIV as linked infections is at the heart of the approach of the Desmond Tutu TB clinic in Stellenbosch in South Africas Western Cape, as UNAIDS highlights:

Collaboration between TB and HIV services helps save lives5, UNAIDS, March 24, 2009

People talk of AIDS in Africa, but Africa is a diverse continent, and different regions have been attempting to tackle AIDS in different ways, some with positive effect, while others seemingly making little progress.

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Lack of Action by Some African Leaders

As many African countries have moved towards democratization, they have been rewarded with paying off the debts of their previously unelected regimes, often dictatorships backed by foreign nations, most of whom embezzled billions of dollars from their own country into private savings.

Obstruction by some major pharmaceutical companies (detailed further below) has also contributed to the hampered responses of many governments.

While poverty is undoubtedly a crucial factor as to why health problems are so severe in Africa (also detailed further below), political will of national governments is paramount, despite disheartening odds. Constraints such as social norms and taboos, or lack of decisive or effective institutions6 have all contributed to the situation getting worse.

In South Africa, a relatively wealthy African nation, during much of his term former president Thabo Mbeki had long denied that AIDS resulted from HIV. Only through public outrage and international pressure was he forced to admit that there was a problem.

For more details on this, see Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre, (Harper Perennial, 2009), chapter 10 in particular, also available on line7, where Goldacre describes a vitamin-pill entrepreneur, Matthias Rath, claiming anti-retroviral drugs were posionous, and Multivitamin treatment is more effective than any toxic AIDS drug. Multivitamins cut the risk of developing AIDS in half.

Goldacre also notes that Interestingly, Matthias Rath’s colleague and employee, a South African barrister named Anthony Brink, takes the credit for introducing Thabo Mbeki to many of these ideas that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, and that anti-retroviral drugs are not useful for patients. (p.185)

South Africa’s health minister at this time was also against medical drugs for HIV:

This resistance, of course, went deeper than just one man; much of it came from Mbeki’s Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. An ardent critic of medical drugs for HIV, she would cheerfully go on television to talk up their dangers, talk down their benefits, and became irritable and evasive when asked how many patients were receiving effective treatment. She declared in 2005 that she would not be pressured into meeting the target of three million patients on anti-retroviral medication, that people had ignored the importance of nutrition, and that she would continue to warn patients of the sideeffects of anti-retrovirals, saying: We have been vindicated in this regard. We are what we eat.

It’s an eerily familiar catchphrase. Tshabalala-Msimang has also gone on record to praise the work of Matthias Rath, and refused to investigate his activities.… The remedies she advocates for AIDS are beetroot, garlic, lemons and African potatoes.

… Alternative therapists like to suggest that their treatments and ideas have not been sufficiently researched. … research had indeed been done, with results that were far from promising.

Ben Goldacre, Bad Science8, (Harper Perennial, 2009), pp.187 – 188

How did Rath get this view? Goldacre notes a study in which 25 per cent of those on vitamins were severely ill or dead, compared with 31 per cent of those on placebo. There was also a statistically significant benefit in CD4 cell count (a measure of HIV activity) and viral loads. These results were in no sense dramatic – and they cannot be compared to the demonstrable life-saving benefits of anti-retrovirals – but they did show that improved diet, or cheap generic vitamin pills, could represent a simple and relatively inexpensive way to marginally delay the need to start HIV medication in some patients.

Goldacre adds that Rath mentioned it in full-page advertisements, some of which have appeared in the New York Times and the Herald Tribune. He refers to these paid adverts … as if he had received flattering news coverage in the same papers. (p.191)

In the hands of Rath, this study became evidence that vitamin pills are superior to medication in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, that anti-retroviral therapies severely damage all cells in the body–including white blood cells, and worse, that they were thereby not improving but rather worsening immune deficiencies and expanding the AIDS epidemic. The researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health were so horrified that they put together a press release9 setting out their support for medication, and stating starkly, with unambiguous clarity, that Matthias Rath had misrepresented their findings.

… The United Nations has condemned Rath’s adverts as wrong and misleading. This guy is killing people by luring them with unrecognised treatment without any scientific evidence, said Eric Goemaere, head of Médecins sans Frontières SA, a man who pioneered anti-retroviral therapy in South Africa. Rath sued him.

Ben Goldacre, Bad Science10, (Harper Perennial, 2009), p.192

As Goldacre continues (p.192), It’s not just MSF who Rath has gone after: he has also brought time-consuming, expensive, stalled or failed cases against a professor of AIDS research, critics in the media and others. Goldacre then describes how Rath has gone after a local, poor, NGO, Treatment Action Campaign, fighting for available medicines. In 2007, with a huge public flourish, to great media coverage, Rath’s former employee Anthony Brink filed a formal complaint against Zackie Achmat, the head of the TAC. Bizarrely, he filed this complaint with the International Criminal Court at The Hague, accusing Achmat of genocide for successfully campaigning to get access to HIV drugs for the people of South Africa. (p.194)

Despite these problems, Goldacre notes that Rath’s adverts continue unabated. He even claimed that his activities were endorsed by huge lists of sponsors and affiliates including the World Health Organization, UNICEF and UNAIDS11. All have issued statements flatly denouncing his claims and activities. (p.191).

The current and future generations are thus paying for this with their own lives.

However, other nations in Africa have shown a more proactive response to the crisis.

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Action by other African Leaders

Some nations in Africa have shown a more proactive response to the crisis. Though it is one of the world’s poorest countries, Senegal has been a success story when it comes to fighting HIV/AIDS12. Reasons are many, including that

  • Problems were recognized early;
  • Resources were poured into fighting HIV/AIDS; and
  • Courageous steps were taken to deal with the religious and cultural taboos head on, using mass media to raise awareness effectively.
  • Both prevention strategies and reactive approaches such as condom use have also been promoted.
  • Universal access to anti-retroviral drugs was found to be more effective than user fees, for example and by monitoring and responding, they were able to increase health coverage and access to essential medicines, as USAIDS reported in its World Report 200413

UNAIDS, reporting years earlier on Senegal’s success did, however, admit that

there was much in the social structure of Senegal as well as in the structure of its health services even before the advent of AIDS that favored a response once the threat of an HIV epidemic became clear. But it was the determined use of those existing advantages to generate a national response early on that can be credited with the fact that, at the end of the 1990s, Senegal has one of the lowest rates of HIV infection in sub-Saharan Africa.

Acting early to prevent AIDS: The case of Senegal14, UNAIDS, June 1999, p.23

Uganda has also been another success story in fighting AIDS. UNAIDS warns that even when there are successes, complacency must not seep in, as there are signs that in Uganda young people today may be less knowledgeable about AIDS than their counterparts in the 1990s15.

A variety of additional approaches observed include

  • Governments working with NGOs and their own people to deal with gender issues;
  • Recognizing the role of grandparents in high cases of orphaned children;
  • Using the mainstream media to raise awareness;
  • Providing universal health access in many cases;
  • Improving children’s access to education.

Botswana, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Senegal, and Zambia, have also tried to provide free HIV treatment as user fees have prevented people from receiving health services16. Some of these free treatments are funded by a combination of government resources and donor contributions, showing partnerships at work.

There is still a long way to go, as prevention programs reach fewer than 1 in 5 in Africa, for example, as the UNAIDS World Report 2004 mentioned above notes (p.70). Despite the incredibly difficult challenge still facing most countries, there are important reasons to be optimistic.

The Center for Global Development think tank notes a number of conclusions in Saving Millions17:

  1. Major health interventions have worked even in the poorest of countries;
  2. Donor funding has saved lives;
  3. Saving lives saves money;
  4. Partnerships between governments, NGOs, and private companies can be powerful;
  5. National governments can get the job done;
  6. Health behaviors can be changed; and
  7. Successful programs take many forms.

This has required a number of elements:

  • Predictable, adequate funding from both international and local sources;
  • Political leadership and champions;
  • Technical innovation within an effective delivery system, at a sustainable price;
  • Technical consensus about the appropriate biomedical or public health approach;
  • Good management on the ground; and
  • Effective use of information.

UNAIDS’s strategy is a three-pronged approach:

  1. Decreasing the risk of infection to slow down the spread;
  2. Decreasing vulnerability to reduce risk and impact; and
  3. Reducing risk to decrease vulnerability.


This is a problem with a solution. As our report indicates, we know what works—successful approaches are evolving locally, nationally and globally. They are being helped by the growing momentum of international political leadership, by business workplace programs, and by the dynamic mobilization of affected communities themselves—a key element that remains at the heart of our global response.

UNAIDS 2004 Report on the global AIDS epidemic18, p.8

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Global funds help, global financial crisis hinders

As noted above, international donors have tried to help tackle this problem. While there have been many success stories, there have also been some obstacles from the international community.

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria was created at the urging of UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, in 2001. It was supposed to be the largest fund set up to tackle these global health issues.

However, it has suffered from poor funding, slow distribution, and other political obstacles from some of the richest countries such as the US that would prefer to have their own initiatives (such as PEPFAR—the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief) so they have more control over where the money goes.

On initial thought, this sounds reasonable; a nation such as the US has the resources and ability to determine where that money should be spent. However, the concern is that the decisions become political, rather than health/need driven. The Global Fund is supposed to be a fund where countries donate without any strings attached.

However, the US’s PEPFAR approach has come under criticism from organizations such as the international HIV and AIDS charity, AVERT. They argue that going it alone in this way allows the US to avoid supporting countries perceived to be hostile (a political stance), or those who may support programs it currently does not like—such as abortion and condom use during the Bush Administration (a social/religious stance), or use of generic drugs that are cheaper than the ones from their pharmaceutical companies (an economic stance).

Prescribing social, political and economic conditions are not necessarily the best way to deal with a massive public health issue, although PEPFAR has claimed to have some successes in Africa.

For a good overview about the challenges and obstacles for the Global Fund, see The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria19 by AVERT, last accessed June 22, 2009.

It is not just direct international actions that affect Africa, but also other seemingly unrelated issues.

The global financial crisis20—a problem largely caused by rich nations—has led to some African countries cutting their health and HIV budgets. Their health budgets and resources have been constrained for many years already, so this crisis makes a bad situation worse:

Already, large percentages of households in Sub-Saharan Africa are poor, and the large number of people on treatment means ever-increasing treatment program costs.

Yet, Sub-Saharan Africa only accounts for one percent of global health expenditure and two percent of the global health workforce. Currently, only one third of HIV-positive Africans in need of antiretroviral (ARV) treatment can access it.

… Dr Bactrin Killingo, chairperson of the Nairobi-based Collaborative Fund for HIV Treatment Preparedness [says, ] If current cost constraints faced by HIV treatment programmes are not addressed, while the demand for expensive second-line treatment increases, we will soon find ourselves in a situation similar to the 1990s, where millions of lives were lost unnecessarily because people could not afford the treatment they needed to stay alive.

Kristin Palitza, Health-Africa: Global Financial Crisis Leads to HIV Budget Cuts21, Inter Press Service, May 18, 2009

And it is not just poor nations’ health funds at risk. IPS adds that even international donor organizations have started to feel the financial crunch:

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria recently announced it is at least $4 billion short of the money it will need to continue funding essential HIV, TB and malaria services in 2010. The coalition believes there is a $10.7 billion funding gap for regional implementation of the Global Plan to Stop TB alone.

Kristin Palitza, Health-Africa: Global Financial Crisis Leads to HIV Budget Cuts22, Inter Press Service, May 18, 2009

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Belated International/Western Media Attention to AIDS in Africa

While AIDS in Africa has now been on the agenda in many first world countries and often receives reasonable media attention, it has taken a long time to get to that position and report on the crisis and reflect the concerns of citizens in those countries to help address this problem.

By 1990, the sense of urgency about AIDS in wealthy nations had also started to dissipate. In the '90s it became clear we were not going to have a major heterosexual epidemic in the States, said Michael Merson, who would succeed Mann at the WHO program. AIDS was no longer a threat to the West.

Foege, the former [US federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] CDC director, now teaches at Emory University. He has a maxim for his public health students: Tie the needs of the poor with the fears of the rich. When the rich lose their fear, they are not willing to invest in the problems of the poor.

Barton Gellman, The Belated Global Response to AIDS in Africa23, Washington Post, July 5, 2000

What is also disturbing is how the situation in Sub-Saharan Africa only become real western mainstream media news headlines around the time HIV and AIDS was declared a national security threat to the United States. While it it understandable that a media may reflect concerns in its own nation, it is another example of the mainstream coverage and their priorities, especially when there is a lot to report in terms of western economic policies seen through the various international institutions that have increased poverty, an important factor in the spread of AIDS.

Major western media outlets also claim to be the best sources of world news, yet the items covered seem driven by the agenda of rich nations, not of the actual events around the world. (See this site’s section on mainstream media24 for more on that angle.)

Western politicians were concerned about the plight of Kosovars leading up to the Kosovo crisis, but there was not a similar concern for people on the continent of Africa, where far more have died from AIDS (already in the millions—approximately 11 million people around the beginning of 1999—by the time concern for Kosovo was raised. This is not to belittle the situation in Kosovo, but to help put it in perspective).

Now that it is a direct concern for some western countries as well, there is increased reporting on the situation in Africa as well. Could the same interest in African affairs earlier helped raise awareness and the urgency for help earlier?

When Brown and Hall first proposed to study the phenomenon in 1987, they could not obtain CIA approval for use of personnel and computer modeling resources. Internal critics declared global AIDS an unfit subject of intelligence, or said the impact on U.S. interests would be benign.

Speaking of one military colleague at the National Intelligence Council, Brown said, His penetrating analysis was, Oh, it will be good, because Africa is overpopulated anyway. Others were saying, It may be big, but what are you going to do about it? Still others, Brown recalled, discounted the likelihood of damage to allied militaries. If officers began dying of the disease, they said, That boosts morale, because there’s more room for advancement.

Another security official, recalling those debates, said critics reasoned that Africa’s limitless pool of unemployed men left armies with plenty of reinforcements. If you have one 18-year-old with a Kalashnikov [rifle] and he dies, you find another 18-year-old, he said. The cold truth was that the impact on military stability was minimal.

Barton Gellman, The Belated Global Response to AIDS in Africa25, Washington Post, July 5, 2000

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Western Pharmaceutical Companies’ Reaction to AIDS in Africa

AIDS policy is now a key world commodity—right up there with shiploads of computers, crude oil and wheat.

Patricia Nell Warren, AIDS and the World Bank: Global Blackmail?26, A&U Magazine, June 27, 2000

Accompanying the concern of the belated western media attention is the action of the multinational pharmaceutical companies and their lobbying efforts in first world countries and international forums, which reveal they are more worried for their profits27 than the plight of African nations, for they have resisted African nations’ attempts to use generic versions of their expensive drugs or pursue other related policies.

Currently, treatments, which Medicines Sans Frontiers describe as having transformed HIV/AIDS from a death sentence to a chronic disease in developed countries, are expensive and affordable by mainly the wealthier people in western countries. However, poor people—including those in industrialized nations—are the major victims of HIV and AIDS.

On July 19, 2000, the Export-Import Bank of the United States offered $1 billion per year for five years in loans28 to Sub-Saharan Africa to finance the purchase of U.S. HIV/AIDS medications and related equipment and services from U.S. pharmaceutical firms. However, three southern African countries, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe rejected the offer because the loans would further the dependency and debt of African countries 29, while American pharmaceutical corporations would benefit. Another criticism such motions have received is that this ends up benefitting those companies who, in effect, get a free subsidy. In this way, U.S. corporate interests are advanced.

Oxfam went as far as accusing some corporations of contributing to human rights violations by trying to prevent access to the needed drugs:

Oxfam believes that 39 of the world’s biggest drug companies are contributing to a gross breach of human rights in South Africa and has today called on the United Nations to investigate.

Drug giants set to cause violation of human rights30, Oxfam Press Release, April 11, 2001

Numerous pharmaceutical companies took South Africa to court31 at the beginning of March 2001, over language in the Medicines Act which would allow for generic production and parallel importing of affordable AIDS drugs.

However, the public outrage around the world that resulted from these companies trying to do such a thing while people were dying led to them drop their case32 in April, 2001.

That was only part of the battle that South Africa won, and at some cost:

People concerned by globalisation frequently invoke the spectre of the growing might of corporations, which are seen as claiming ever greater chunks of influence in global policy setting. Rarely has this picture been drawn as clearly as in a recent court case in South Africa, in which the government of the country with more people living with HIV/AIDS than any other was locked into a fierce struggle with an industry doing everything possible to preserve its profits.

Happily, this David-and-Goliath story ended well when the 39 pharmaceutical companies suing the government decided to unconditionally drop their case against the Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Act, No. 90 of 1997, albeit after having tied it up in court for more than three years. Thus the final victory must be tempered by its high costs: during these three years, more than 400,000 South Africans have died of HIV/AIDS. Additionally, it is important to recognize that the legal victory alone will not automatically translate into improved care for people with HIV/AIDS; further steps are necessary before the hopes raised by this case—particularly for access to life-saving anti-retroviral medications—can be realized.

Toby Kasper, Developing Countries Must Stand Firm on People Over Patents33, South Centre Bulletin 11, 30 April 2001 (Emphasis Added)

As Oxfam and other organizations have charged, due to negative publicity in recent years, the large pharmaceutical companies are also using corporate philanthropy to push their products at prices that would still be higher than generics, which poorer countries would be able to afford:

Several major pharmaceutical corporations are supporting international initiatives either by donating drugs or by subsidizing drugs provision, often receiving generous tax benefits in return. There are longstanding initiatives in place for controlling malaria, tuberculosis, and river blindness.

Pharmaceutical companies cite such agreements as evidence that strict patent protection under the WTO is compatible with socially responsible marketing. Reality is more prosaic. The main problem with these initiatives is that drugs are often made available in limited quantities, and at prices which compare unfavorably with those for generic-equivalent products.

During 2000, these initiatives were supplemented by an agreement between UNAIDS and five pharmaceutical companies … to improve access to treatment for HIV-positive people in developing countries [and] provide anti-retroviral products at significant discounts as part of a national AIDS plan.

Nevertheless, it has been slow to implement … and many African governments continue to argue that the waiving of patent rights on life-saving drugs would be a far more effective way of bringing down prices.

In effect … Commercial self-interest and corporate philanthropy are pulling in different directions. [Emphasis is original]

Patent Injustice: How World Trade Rules Threaten the Health of Poor People34, Cut the Cost campaign, Oxfam, September 2003

Furthermore, while pharmaceutical companies pour research into cures, and the way that they are doing it is raising appropriate criticisms and concerns, this attention also diverts the much needed emphasis on prevention as summarized by the following:

What might be overlooked, however, as life-sustaining drugs become available, is the fact that prevention is still by far the more compassionate and more cost-effective answer. Prevention does not replace treatment, but it does reduce the number of people whose lives will depend on expensive drugs with significant side effects.


Attending to broader health concerns is not as expensive, or as hopeless, as it might seem. There are also serious weaknesses in a prevention plan that relies exclusively on provision of condoms, even with health education. It does not address women’s lack of power in sexual relationships, nor the irrelevance of condoms to most people after a few beers. Strengthening immune systems will help to protect people from some of the consequences of unsafe sex and from other infectious diseases as well. What it will take to prevent HIV transmission and to treat people with HIV/AIDS is no less, but no more, than what has been needed all along in sub-Saharan Africa and other poor regions. It would have been cheaper to provide the infrastructure, the nutrition, the education and the medicines before HIV/AIDS, but it is still a bargain calculated in both compassionate and cost-effective terms.

Eileen Stillwaggon, AIDS and the Poverty in Africa35, The Nation Magazine, May 21 2001

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Impact of Poverty on AIDS in Africa

The following quote reveals a lot:

Although there are numerous factors in the spread of HIV/AIDS, it is largely recognised as a disease of poverty, hitting hardest where people are marginalised and suffering economic hardship. IMF designed Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), adopted by debtor countries as a condition of debt relief, are hurting, not working. By pushing poor people even deeper into poverty, SAPs may be increasing their vulnerability to HIV infection, and reinforcing conditions where the scourge of HIV/AIDS can flourish.

Deadly Conditions? Examining the relationship between debt relief policies and HIV/AIDS36, Medact and the World Development Movement, September 1999

Africa Action, an organization looking into political, economic and social justice for Africa looked at the impacts of IMF and World Bank structural adjustments and its impacts on health in Africa, and is worth quoting at length:

Health status is influenced by socioeconomic factors as well as by the state of health care delivery systems. The policies prescribed by the World Bank and IMF have increased poverty in African countries and mandated cutbacks in the health sector. Combined, this has caused a massive deterioration in the continent’s health status.

The health care systems inherited by most African states after the colonial era were unevenly weighted toward privileged elites and urban centers. In the 1960s and 1970s, substantial progress was made in improving the reach of health care services in many African countries. Most African governments increased spending on the health sector during this period. They endeavored to extend primary health care and to emphasize the development of a public health system to redress the inequalities of the colonial era. The World Health Organization (WHO) emphasized the importance of primary healthcare at the historic Alma Ata Conference in 1978. The Declaration of Alma Ata focused on a community-based approach to health care and resolved that comprehensive health care was a basic right and a responsibility of government.

These efforts undertaken by African governments after independence were quite successful....

While the progress across the African continent was uneven, it was significant, not only because of its positive effects on the health of African populations. It also illustrated a commitment by African leaders to the principle of building and developing their health care systems.

With the economic crisis of the 1980s, much of Africa’s economic and social progress over the previous two decades began to come undone. As African governments became clients of the World Bank and IMF, they forfeited control over their domestic spending priorities. The loan conditions of these institutions forced contraction in government spending on health and other social services....

The relationship between poverty and ill-health is well established. The economic austerity policies attached to World Bank and IMF loans led to intensified poverty in many African countries in the 1980s and 1990s. This increased the vulnerability of African populations to the spread of diseases and to other health problems....

The deepening poverty across the continent has created fertile ground for the spread of infectious diseases. Declining living conditions and reduced access to basic services have led to decreased health status. In Africa today, almost half of the population lacks access to safe water and adequate sanitation services. As immune systems have become weakened, the susceptibility of Africa’s people to infectious diseases has greatly increased....

Even as government spending on health was cut back, the amounts being paid by African governments to foreign creditors continued to increase. By the 1990s, most African countries were spending more repaying foreign debts than on health or education for their people. Health care services in African countries disintegrated, while desperately needed resources were siphoned off by foreign creditors. It was estimated in 1997 that sub-Saharan African governments were transferring to Northern creditors four times what they were spending on the health of their people. In 1998, Senegal spent five times as much repaying foreign debts as on health. Across Africa, debt repayments compete directly with spending on Africa’s health care services.

The erosion of Africa’s health care infrastructure has left many countries unable to cope with the impact of HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Efforts to address the health crisis have been undermined by the lack of available resources and the breakdown in health care delivery systems. The privatization of basic health care has further impeded the response to the health crisis....

The World Bank has recommended several forms of privatization in the health sector.... Throughout Africa, the privatization of health care has reduced access to necessary services. The introduction of market principles into health care delivery has transformed health care from a public service to a private commodity. The outcome has been the denial of access to the poor, who cannot afford to pay for private care.... For example ... user fees have actually succeeded in driving the poor away from health care [while] the promotion of insurance schemes as a means to defray the costs of private health care ... is inherently flawed in the African context. Less than 10% of Africa’s labor force is employed in the formal job sector.

Beyond the issue of affordability, private health care is also inappropriate in responding to Africa’s particular health needs. When infectious diseases constitute the greatest challenge to health in Africa, public health services are essential. Private health care cannot make the necessary interventions at the community level. Private care is less effective at prevention, and is less able to cope with epidemic situations. Successfully responding to the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases in Africa requires strong public health care services.

The privatization of health care in Africa has created a two-tier system which reinforces economic and social inequalities. As health care has become an expensive privilege, the poor have been unable to pay for essential services. The result has been reduced access and increased rates of illness and mortality. Despite these devastating consequences, the World Bank and IMF have continued to push for the privatization of public health services.

Ann-Louise Colgan, Hazardous to Health: The World Bank and IMF in Africa37, Africa Action, April 18, 2002

The article also comments on recent increases in funds to tackle HIV/AIDS and other problems and concludes that because some underlying causes and issues are not addressed, these steps may not have much effective impact:

The World Bank has also increased its funding for health, and for HIV/AIDS programs in particular. While the shift in focus towards prioritizing social development and poverty eradication is welcome, fundamental problems remain. New lending for health and education can achieve little when the debt burden of most African countries is already unsustainable. Debt cancellation should be the first step in enabling African countries to tackle their social development challenges. Additional resources to support health and education programs should be conceived as public investment, not new loans. The new spin on the World Bank and IMF priorities fails to change the basic agenda and operations of these institutions. Indeed, it appears to be largely an exercise in public relations. The conditions attached to World Bank and IMF loans still reflect the same orientation prescribed over the past two decades. The recent moves towards promoting poverty reduction have actually permitted these institutions to increase the scope of their loan conditions to include social sector reforms and governance aspects. This allows an even greater intrusion into the domestic policies of African countries. It is highly inappropriate that external creditors should have such control over the priorities of African governments. And it is disingenuous for such creditors to proclaim concern with poverty reduction when they continue to drain desperately needed resources from the poorest countries....

The free market fundamentalism of the World Bank and IMF has had a disastrous impact on Africa’s health. The all-out pursuit of market-led growth has undermined health and health care in African countries. It has forced governments to sacrifice social needs to meet macroeconomic goals.

This approach to development is fundamentally flawed. The failure to prioritize public health denies its significance in promoting long-term economic growth. As the WHO Commission on Macroeconomics and Health recently concluded, health is more than an outcome of development, it is a crucial means to achieving development.

Ann-Louise Colgan, Hazardous to Health: The World Bank and IMF in Africa38, Africa Action, April 18, 2002

There is also the phenomenon of brain drain39 whereby the poor countries educate some of their population to key jobs such as medical areas and other professions only to find that some rich countries try to attract them away. The prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) sums this up in the title of an article: Developed world is robbing African countries of health staff (Rebecca Coombes, BMJ, Volume 230, p.923, April 23, 2005.) Some countries are left with just 500 doctors each with large areas without any health workers of any kind. One third of practicing doctors in UK are from overseas40 as the BBC notes.

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For more information on AIDS in general:

  • OneWorld and its partner organizations have been reporting on the issue of AIDS in developing countries for a number of years now. They have a number of major sections from where you can start:
    • AIDSChannel.org44
    • Guide on AIDS45.
    • Dispatch on the AIDS Emergency46
    • News articles on AIDS47
  • UNICEF’s Progress of Nations, 1999, has a section on the AIDS Emergency48.
  • Deadly Conditions? Examining the relationship between debt relief policies and HIV/AIDS.49 A report by Medact and the World Development Movement.
  • UN Development Program’s report, Poverty & HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa50
  • AIDS and the World Bank: Global Blackmail?51 looks into some of the global politics at play and the effects of some reactions from South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki.
  • The XIII International AIDS Conference52, Durban, South Africa provides information on the 13th conference on AIDS, that occurred in July 2000
  • Durban 2000 March53 for HIV/AIDS treatment is a march against pharmaceutical giants and governments—planned to coincide with the opening day of the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa in July.
  • AIDS in Africa; The Orphaned Child54 is a BBC special report. It contains various facts and case studies, as well as a look into the role of the drugs companies involved.
  • From the Democracy Now! radio show, the July 2000 archives55 have a number of talks about the AIDS issue.
  • AIDS in Africa56 from the Washington Post provides a number of articles of interest. In particular check out The Belated Global Response to AIDS in Africa
    • It is in two parts:
  • UNAIDS59, The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, provides a lot of informations, statistics and reports.
  • The Epidemic and the Media60 from the provides a collection of articles looking at the role of the media in this issue.
  • AIDS and the Poverty in Africa61, from The Nation Magazine, May 21 2001, looks at the relationship between poverty, and the lack of consideration of such aspects that has gone into current scientific research to explain the causes of the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

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0 articles on “AIDS in Africa” and 2 related issues:

Health Issues

Around the world, large numbers of people suffer unnecessarily and die from often easily preventable illnesses and conditions. For example, an estimated 1 billion people lack access to health care systems while millions die each year from diseases such as malaria, Tuberculosis and AIDS.

While health service provision is a desire for most people, nations struggle to find sufficient funds as they face high drug prices (sometimes with drug companies challenging countries—especially poor ones—that may legally try to create cheaper generic ones when faced with urgent health issues) while changing lifestyles are contributing to deteriorating health.

Read “Health Issues” to learn more.

Conflicts in Africa

Read “Conflicts in Africa” to learn more.

Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created:
  • Last updated:

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Document revision history

Updated the AIDS statistics (replacing the 2007 statistics)
Embedded two videos showing impact of AIDS on children and how AIDS is linked to other illnesses such as TB. Also added some additional background on the South African government’s inappropriate resistance to HIV drugs, global funding, the impact of the global financial crisis, and drug company approaches.
Updated the AIDS statistics (replacing the 2006 statistics)
Updated the AIDS statistics
Update to AIDS impact, the effects of brain drain, and addition of a few success stories. Else, remainder remains untouched from May 15, 2002.