Swazi HIV rate surpasses Botswana's as world's highest
A senior U.N. official criticized Swaziland's monarchy Saturday for failing to rein in HIV/AIDS, which now infects 38.6 percent of Swaziland's population, making the southern African nation's prevalence rate the highest in the world, Agence France-Presse reports.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis, closed his three-day visit to Swaziland by slamming the kingdom's leadership for being "too slow to recognize the threat of HIV/AIDS on people's lives" and saying it would have to act with "lightning speed" if it wanted to reduce the prevalence rate.
Swaziland has now overtaken Botswana, which previously had the world's highest percentage of HIV-infected people at 38.8 percent (AFP/Yahoo! News, March 21). In 2002, Botswana tied Swaziland with a prevalence rate of just over 38 percent. However, in 2001, the Botswana government launched a campaign against HIV/AIDS that included provision of anti-retroviral drugs free of charge to all sufferers. The prevalence rate there is now 37.5 percent.
Swaziland has yet to undertake such a concerted effort. According to World Markets Research Center, this has resulted in a steady climb from Swaziland's 4 percent HIV infection rate a decade ago. Also, the lack of political freedom under the leadership of King Mswati III, Africa's last absolute monarch, has clouded the nation's ties to the international donor community, barring much-needed funding for an anti-HIV/AIDS campaign (Gus Selassie, World Markets Research Center release, March 19).
Lewis recalled that on his previous visit to Swaziland, about 70 percent of the beds at the central Mbabane government hospital were filled with AIDS patients. Now doctors say that figure has climbed to 90 percent, Lewis said.
As a result of the high rate of HIV infection, the nation's orphan population is also growing. Lewis said that according to Swazi authorities, by 2010 there will be 120,000 children without parents because of AIDS.
Lewis also addressed the importance of gender equality when combating HIV/AIDS saying, "Women must have the right to say no (to sex), the right to insist that men wear condoms."
Encouraging health organizations to speak up, Lewis insisted that when it came to the AIDS pandemic, it was necessary to be forceful with political leaders and even kings.
Lewis also reserved criticism for the international community for merely watching as AIDS swept across Africa for 20 years. "But it's changing," he said. "There is a willingness now to help" (Integrated Regional Information Networks, March 19).