A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

AIDS threatens Botswana's economic successes

Agence France Presse

September 29, 2006

As Botswana celebrates 40 years of freedom this weekend, the shadow of AIDS threatens much of its successes as a stable and prosperous nation: a rarity in poverty-stricken and restive Africa.

Between a quarter and a third of the population is estimated to be HIV-positive and international agencies say life expectancy in the former British colony has dropped to an average of 34 years.

The southern African country, which on Saturday marks it 40th anniversary of independence, has a negative population growth curve, according to the United States Central Intelligence Agency.

"It has had a devastating impact on our community," says David Ngele, executive director of the Botswana Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS.

"Since independence, our priorities have been education and fighting poverty. Now that we have achieved that to a large extent, we are facing another threat in the form of AIDS.

"Our engineers and others in good positions have been hard hit. AIDS is threatening our industry."

The country's health ministry has called AIDS an emergency and says 38.5 percent of the adult population carries the HIV virus that can lead to AIDS.

A 2006 UNAIDS report put Botswana's adult HIV prevalence rate at about 24 percent and called it a "serious epidemic".

Prevention is the backbone of Botswana's AIDS strategy with widespread distribution of free condoms.

Anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs, which dent the virus' ability to replicate itself and weaken the body's immune system, are sponsored by the government in what the health ministry says is the first of its kind in Africa.

A total of 68,440 people were receiving ARVs by June this year, the health ministry says. Of these, 59,940 were sponsored by the state.

The government has set a target of 150,000 on treatment by 2009, but has expressed concerns about the costs.

"Sustainability of the service cost sharing has to be critically looked at if Botswana has to sustain the provision of ARV therapy," the ministry said recently.

Other challenges include insufficient infrastructure and staff to ensure patients use the drugs safely and effectively.

Elias Dewah, executive director of the Botswana Confederation of Commerce, Industry and Manpower, says AIDS has proved dear leading to low productivity, absenteeism and death.

"We have lost a lot of people," he told AFP. "It is a matter of extreme concern, but it is not yet a disaster."

The business sector is working closely with the government and non-governmental bodies on prevention education programmes to turn the tide.

Ngele quotes recent statistics showing a declining infection trend among the 15 to 24 and 25 to 30 age groups.

"The message is starting to come through."

Young people in the capital, Gaborone, put the epidemic high on their list of current challenges.

"AIDS is a worry," says taxi driver Moshima Modise, 23. "Everybody is aware of it, and people are getting tested."

Ngele lauded the government's efforts but said more support was needed for NGOs.

Better education was needed too, he said, as denialism, stigmatisation and myths abound.

"We need a bigger focus on people who are already HIV positive to stop them from spreading the virus. We cannot afford to concentrate on those who are negative only."

The Botswana government aims to curb new infections entirely by 2016, a goal deemed impossible by some.

"It is ambitious, but I suppose it is good to aim so high," said Dewah.

Alice Mogwe, director of the Ditshwanelo Centre for Human Rights says good policies and intentions were useless without accompanying actions.

"The intention is wonderful, the challenge is how to realise it."

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