5 Lessons From Africa About Fighting AIDS

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

Linda Villarosa

And unlike far too many faith-based organizations here, the church establishment in Zambia has largely moved past judgment and beyond abstinence-only messages. “When HIV came here, the church took on the role of providing care, particularly in rural areas,” says Dr. Clement Chela, director general of the National AIDS Council, a government agency. In fact, the chairman of NAC’s board is a senior church pastor.

“Early on, some were obstructive, especially on condoms. But the church has come a long way in providing all kinds of reproductive health services, HIV support, counseling and treatment — including condoms.”

Imagine if congregations all over our country, especially those in poor black communities and including rich mega-churches, took on HIV/AIDS as a cause — with compassion instead of judgment.

Include Men in HIV/AIDS Prevention

In Zambia, HIV is more common in women than in men, and most women are infected by a husband or boyfriend in the context of a “stable” relationship. To reach men, last year Zambia launched a mass-media campaign called Brothers for Life. Its messages are blunt, targeted and to the point: “A man takes responsibility through his thoughts and actions. Be a man for life,” and “Be a man who is not afraid to know his HIV status.”

In the U.S., women account for one in four people living with HIV, and the vast majority are infected through sex with a man, often a spouse or a boyfriend. Nearly 70 percent are black. Women are urged to protect themselves and to insist that their partner use a condom every time. But what about men? They’re the ones who wear the condoms. Where is the full-scale HIV-prevention campaign for men who have sex with women who are asking them to be honest and faithful and use condoms every time?

Think Way Outside the Box

One size doesn’t fit all in terms of HIV prevention. To discourage women in Zambia’s Mumbwa district from delivering their babies at home, health care providers enlisted the help of Senior Chief Shakumbila. (At a hospital or clinic, a pregnant woman who has HIV can receive medication to prevent her baby from becoming infected.) The chief created a rule that if a pregnant woman fails to deliver her baby in a medical setting, the family must pay the price of three goats.