5 Lessons From Africa About Fighting AIDS

The continent hasn't done everything right, but America should take note of these strategies.

Linda Villarosa

(The Root) -- At the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., this week, much of the focus has been on Africa. And rightly so: It has been hit hardest by the disease. In Africa, 23 million people are living with the virus, or 68 percent of the world's HIV-positive population. In some African countries as many as one out of every four people are living with the virus. For many, getting infected seems inevitable.

Without a doubt Africa needs us -- our love, support and dollars. But too often we approach Africans only as sick, helpless and in need of "saving." Think of the People magazine photo op: [fill in the name of a well-meaning celebrity] surrounded by a sea of brown faces.

But what if we flipped the switch and looked at what we can learn from the continent that's been sitting squarely in the eye of the HIV/AIDS storm for decades?

In the face of huge obstacles and few resources, Africa has shone with collaborative, creative, inexpensive solutions to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Africa hasn't done everything right. Some governments have mismanaged funds intended for prevention and treatment. And many areas of the continent have ignored the epidemic among gay and bisexual men -- particularly the nearly 40 countries where homosexuality is illegal.

Still, it's worth looking at how Africans have made a way out of no way, especially in impoverished, rural areas where equipment, medical providers and even running water are scarce. And now's the time: We need solutions on our side of the ocean.

Even as AIDS has become a "manageable" illness in the United States, the disease has grabbed hold of black America, where it continues its stranglehold without a sense of action or urgency from anyone aside from the most aware and devoted. In parts of our country -- the South and Washington, D.C. -- African Americans are getting infected at rates that rival and surpass those of the continent politicians and celebrities have been so desperate to save.

Dázon Dixon Diallo has done HIV/AIDS work in both the U.S. and South Africa and points to the African sense of self-reliance and community that we too often lack here. "There it's neighbors taking care of neighbors because they know each other, because they are a community," says Dixon Diallo, founder and president of Atlanta's SisterLove. "Here it's either the AIDS program takes care of you or you're on your own. We need to recapture that sense of caring for each other from our African brothers and sisters."

I agree. When I traveled to Ethiopia and more recently Zambia, I was struck by the many ways Africans beat back the disease with a spirit of hope, collectivism and action frequently missing in this country. Thanks to recent scientific advances, drug therapy will play an increasing role in both HIV prevention and treatment.

But medication alone won't stop the epidemic. It must be coupled with the kind of community-focused, hands-on prevention and care common in Africa. Here are five lessons from countries like Zambia and Ethiopia about fighting the epidemic:

Train Regular People to Deliver Services and Care 

HIV/AIDS in Zambia: The Faces of an Epidemic

A writer snapped these photos depicting the daily battle against the disease in Ethiopia and Zambia.