Column

ARE AIDS STATS REAL?

If we’re to ‘solve’ the suffering in Africa, we need to know the truth

BARBARA AMIEL October 31 2005
Column

ARE AIDS STATS REAL?

If we’re to ‘solve’ the suffering in Africa, we need to know the truth

BARBARA AMIEL October 31 2005

ARE AIDS STATS REAL?

Column

If we’re to ‘solve’ the suffering in Africa, we need to know the truth

BARBARA AMIEL

LAST WEEK, George W. Bush had a working lunch with rock star Bono. They discussed debt relief, AIDS, malaria and world trade. Whatever. Senators Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar had done even better. They got Angelina Jolie. The UN’s goodwill ambassador for refugees was in town for the Sept. 28 Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, where “solutions” for ending Third World poverty were debated. “I don’t have an answer,” Miss Jolie (annual income three trillion) said modestly, “but it’s hard for me to accept we can’t do it.” With tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and the much anticipated avian flu pandemic

claiming government attention, the AIDS lobby is concerned they will get left behind. Living with the disease in Georgetown, D.C., is nightmarish enough. Millions of emaciated Africans with flies crawling across their barely focused eyes and a bit of hard ground as their “hospice” can only be compared to Dante’s seventh circle.

Africa and AIDS are a mystery. You pour money in and matters get worse. For 20 years or so, this epidemic has been swallowing funds, medicine and attention and only getting bigger. Why? I don’t see any convincing evidence that Africans are more sexually promiscuous than the sexually promiscuous West. They don’t have more heroin addicts, probably far fewer. They may not have had condoms and safe-sex education 20 years ago, but once the pandemic was announced, the hills were alive with the sound of Trojans.

A few people here and in Africa—scientists, journalists and observers—think it is because the statistics and the media reporting are false. AIDS in the sub-Sahara may not be as big a killer as it is made out to be. The American Spectator's Tom Bethell has been banging this drum, and on the face of it he makes a lot of sense. I want to know, because you can’t help Africa until you have a proper diagnosis.

Bethell’s case is straightforward. The World Health Organization organized a meeting in Bangui, Central African Republic, in 1985. At that meeting, the rules for diagnosing AIDS in Africa were established. Tick off two of the following major signs: weight loss of at least 10 per cent, a month’s worth of chronic diarrhea or fever and add in just

one minor sign such as a history of herpes zoster, generalized itchy skin rashes, chronic progressive or disseminated herpes virus infection. No HIV test needed.

One assumes that this methodology was used because it was impossible in 1985 to get HIV testing done in any meaningful way. Twenty years later, the only systematic HIV testing in Africa is done at prenatal clinics on pregnant women, which probably accounts for why statistics show HIV spreading among women. In fact, since the bacteriological diseases endemic in Africa can cause “false positives”, those statistics aren’t that helpful.

To bolster his case, Bethell cites the population figures of sub-Saharan Africa, where millions are estimated to be dying from

AIDS, not to mention tribal slaughter and famine. The population of sub-Saharan Africa has increased by 70 per cent since 1985 and is the fastest-growing region in the world.

The motive behind the distortion of African AIDS reporting, if distortions there are, baffles me. Bethell sees it as political. Countries that once had some proper sanitation under colonial rule now give their citizens something akin to sewage to drink. Political correctness forbids laying the blame for this and resulting diseases on African independence. Heterosexual AIDS suits

Western egalitarian fashions, I suppose. Meanwhile, pandemics in the Third World are building blocks for expanding publichealth budgets at agencies like the World Health Organization. And, hell, it can’t hurt to chin-wag with Angelina.

If you die prematurely, it is academic whether you die of AIDS or any one of the diseases that mimic many of its symptoms and are caused by drinking foul water. If you are donating money for humanitarian reasons, you want to save lives, not worry about diagnostic niceties. Anyway, there’s no doubt that AIDS is very much present in Africa. But if, like Bono, Bob Geldof, Angelina, all the senators, parliamentarians, governments, charities—and me—you have a genuine ambition to “solve” the problem of suffering in that blighted continent, you need to know the truth.

Possibly the explanations are straightforward. Paradoxical population growth in Africa may be due to hidden or unexpected factors. Possibly the truth is that African AIDS cases are considerably fewer than reported. Just why, I couldn’t say, except to note that the UN, and its agencies like the WHO and UNAIDS, have rarely found a bandwagon they didn’t hop on and an issue they didn’t distort. Orphans, for example, are commonly defined as children who have lost both parents. In what seems to be a UNAIDS’ affirmative orphanhood program, an African AIDS orphan is anyone under 18 who has lost one parent.

African governance is almost exclusively horrible: corrupt rulers fostering disease and death. Still, self-government is better than good government, and you can’t justify any system but self-government—even one that saves more lives. But truth, whether about Africa or AIDS, is a precious commodity in itself. Monkeying with it, deliberately or negligently, as Angelina, Bono and Co. will eventually find, is not going to give them any “solution” at all. flil

PANDEMICS in the Third World are building blocks for expanding public-health budgets at agencies like WHO. And it can’t hurt to chin-wag with Angelina.