Profs discuss AIDS in Africa

by Mark Herman | 5/2/03 5:00am

Anthropology professor Hoyt Alverson delivered a lecture last night entitled "Global AIDS: The Ignored Plague" on the social and cultural causes for the AIDS epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa and the obstacles to its resolution. He was joined by political scientist Norman Miller who told of his work with AIDS patients while living in Africa.

Alverson quickly identified the proximate cause of the spread of AIDS as sexual activity. The close interactions between people in certain areas of Africa served as a "mathematical recipe" for the epidemic, he said.

In addition to sexual activity, Alverson listed the high incidence of malaria and tuberculosis as co-morbidities to the contraction of AIDS, as one's vulnerability to AIDS is increased in the presence of other diseases.

Malnutrition has also contributed to a "general weakness" among African populations, making them more susceptible to the disease, Alverson said.

With the colonization of African nations, new economies were developed that fostered risky behaviors.

Rural areas were purposely depressed with the introduction of new cities, where men would need to go for work but where they were not permitted to live with their families.

The breakup of the domestic unit, men's distance from cultural restrictions on sexual behavior and anonymous identities in large cities contributed to a new market for "sex workers."

"Sexuality was commoditized," Alverson said.

Once AIDS was contracted, it affected the working age population. Many children were orphaned and fled to cities without knowing they carried the disease. The result was that it infected more people, he said.

Alverson also cited the "absolute poverty of the continent" as a reason AIDS has become so rampant and as a reason for the lack of treatment available.

Those infected are also unwilling to seek Western-style medical attention, because of a clash of views about illness.

"There is a vital belief that the human body is interacting with entities we don't even acknowledge to exist," Alverson said.

Also, many believe that illness is a physical consequence of such mental conditions as envy or jealousy, he added.

When asked by members of the audience why Western-style medicine is not used more often, Alverson offered a glimpse into an African perspective of foreign medicine.

"It's like me saying to you, 'Would you come to my house so I could bathe your feet in goat's blood?'" he said.

Miller then offered his political science perspective on the epidemic, framing it as a "disease of development."

He also spoke of his own experiences in Kenya, where he tried to educate military men -- who had many different sexual partners each month -- of the dangers of AIDS.

Miller and others used innovative tactics to try to change the sexual behaviors of those in the military. One method that worked particularly well included forcing soldiers to write their own wills before instructing them that they would need the documents if they continued having unprotected sex with multiple partners.

To combat AIDS, Miller stressed the need for the widespread use of condoms and policies of "partner reduction."

In the end, Miller also acknowledged the failure of Western leaders to relate to African populations.

"Those who had the power of AIDS prevention didn't understand the cultures," he said.

After concluding the presentation, Alverson and Miller answered questions from the audience and showed a documentary on the incorporation of traditional healers into the Western medical establishment to fight AIDS in South Africa.

The speech was organized by the AIDS Workcrew and the Campus Global AIDS Campaigns.