African, World Leaders Need to ‘Demonstrate Leadership’ on HIV/AIDS, Ugandan President Says
"It is incumbent upon us [as world leaders] to do what we are able to do ... to demonstrate leadership" with regard to HIV/AIDS, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said yesterday at a luncheon in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Under Museveni's leadership, and with the help of corporations such as Pfizer and organizations like the Glaser foundation, Uganda has lowered the HIV rate at antenatal clinics from 30% in 1986 to 6.1% today. That decline proves that "real transformations" are possible in Africa, Museveni said. However, he warned that much remains to be done to avoid having HIV/AIDS "wip[e] out" the gains that have already been made in Africa.
Shouting the Message
According to Museveni, the first step to lowering Uganda's infection rates was to "understand the characteristics of the disease." When he first heard of HIV/AIDS, Museveni said he was concerned that the virus could be spread by mosquitoes. Once he learned that HIV was "not very infectious," but was spread only through contact with infected bodily fluids -- such as during unprotected sex and through blood-to-blood contact -- he concluded that the infection would be "easy to fight" with public information. His next step was to "shout" about HIV/AIDS to raise the disease's profile in Uganda. Museveni mentions the disease at every appearance, no matter whether his speech is health-related. He also moved the National AIDS Committee from the health ministry to the office of the president to mobilize more "social [and] political action" against the disease. Museveni seeks to ensure that all HIV/AIDS messages use "very rough language" when describing the disease, how it is spread and what it can do to an infected person. "You have to frighten people, especially in rural areas where they do not have television" and cannot see the kind of effect HIV/AIDS is having on the population, Museveni explained. Museveni also employs proverbs -- a traditional African communication tool -- in his messages to get his point across. The government has also increased efforts to get people to take HIV tests, most recently by requiring citizens to be tested before getting married. Museveni added that a "careful balance must be struck between prevention and treatment," because people will hesitate to be tested "if diagnosis is nothing more than a death sentence."
A Call to Action
Uganda's success in lowering HIV/AIDS rates can serve as "hope for other nations," Museveni said, noting that "answers start at home and extend abroad." Although Uganda is a developing nation, it is among the nations that have contributed to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Museveni praised President Bush for being the first to pledge money to the fund, but asked that the United States increase its contribution. He noted that the United States has a "unique opportunity as the nation offering the world a vision of peace, prosperity and freedom, as the most powerful voice in the world today, as a nation with a long history of humanitarian concern ... to excel in yet another way, to be remembered as the nation that set the global standard in fighting the worst epidemic ... in world history." He also noted that if the United States increased its contribution to the fund, other nations would soon follow suit, and he encouraged the private sector to play a larger role in fighting HIV/AIDS (Heather Schomann, Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 5/14).