Tag Archives: Nelson Mandela

“With Nelson Mandela behind us…who could be against us?”

13 Dec

The world has been buzzing with the news of the passing of Nelson Mandela last Thursday, with an incessant stream of stories on his life, his legacy, and his impact on crucial issues of civil, political and human rights. He was a champion of the equal provision of rights for all people regardless of race, class, and religion, but following his presidency, he also took on a role as a champion of the rights of people affected by HIV/AIDS. This week marked the 17th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) in Africa, which was appropriately held in Cape Town, South Africa. Conference participants reflected on the impact that Mandela made on the fight against HIV/AIDS, talking more openly about the epidemic at a time when it was still shrouded in silence.

Perhaps even more striking was the impact that Mandela made on the fight against stigma towards HIV/AIDS. From sporting a t-shirt reading “HIV Positive” upon meeting activists with the Treatment Action Campaign and Médecins Sans Frontières in Khayelitsha, South Africa in 2002, to inviting celebrated HIV-activists like Annie Lennox (I love her way too much) to the launch of his 46664 HIV-awareness campaign in 2003, to his acknowledgement in 2005 that he had in fact lost his own son to an AIDS related illness, Nelson Mandela ushered turning point after turning point in the global fight against HIV/AIDS and the stigma that stymies the efforts of AIDS activists everywhere. He was quoted as saying, “let us give publicity to HIV/AIDS and not hide it, because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness, like TB, like cancer, is always to come out and to say somebody has died because of HIV.”

Anyone working in the global effort to curb the spread of HIV and educate populations on its causes and reach can tell you that stigma is often the most difficult barrier to break down in providing effective outreach. This phenomenon is by no means specific to African countries – it exists all over the world – but 97% of those living with HIV reside in low to middle income countries, and adequately providing sufficient resources to curb the spread of HIV in these countries is a colossal task. I remember first arriving in Tanzania some years back, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to join the fight by teaching HIV-prevention education in rural primary schools and local community centres. I was shocked to see and hear first-hand some of the misconceptions and myths about HIV and the general resistance to even acknowledging this devastating epidemic.

There are currently 33.4 million people worldwide living with HIV (and that only accounts for those who have been tested…to say that the actual number of cases is significantly higher is a gross understatement) and over 25 million have already died from AIDS-related illnesses*. Though many still believe that HIV is a myth, or that it is a virus spread from the West to perpetuate some form of neo-imperialistic population control in the developing world. Many cultures believe themselves to be immune. Many believe HIV is spread through lies and rumors, through witches and sin, through curses and (ironically) condoms. There are millions of people in this world who do not want to get tested because they would rather not know their status. This is not only because of the devastating affect of HIV on a person’s health, but also because many communities still stigmatize and reject individuals based on their HIV status.

Educating the world about HIV/AIDS is essential to stopping it. So much emphasis is placed on radical new ARV treatment therapies that we forget that HIV is a 100% preventable virus – spread through sex, blood, and birth from an HIV+ mother. Educating oneself and one’s community about the facts of the epidemic can help to prevent the stigma and breed generations of people working together, regardless of status, to put an end to the spread of HIV.

Nelson Mandela recognized this. Just as he knew that no peoples of this world should be discriminated against based upon the color of their skin, Mandela knew that those living with HIV need the support, acceptance and love of their neighbors – and their country – in order to receive proper care and prevent the virus from spreading further. Though as the conference in Cape Town discussed, “vulnerable groups such as men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, and prisoners are still being criminalized and marginalized in most countries, and are often unable to access basic HIV services.”

Madiba has left the world with an immense legacy of compassion, vision and the relentless pursuit of equality for all human beings. Let us honor that legacy by educating ourselves about HIV/AIDS in our countries and around the world, and recognize that stigmatizing an individual based on their HIV status is no different than discriminating against them based on the color of their skin.

*Quick Fact: Few people seem to understand that HIV is a virus that depletes the immune system over a number of years, most of which are marked by no symptoms, which is why getting tested is the ONLY way to know one’s status. AIDS, on the other hand, is a stage of HIV that comes about once a person’s T-Cell count (the ones that keep us immune to illness and disease) drops so low that our bodies are unable to fight off infection. To say someone has died of AIDS is to say that that person died as a result of opportunistic infections that took advantage of a body with no immune system to protect itself. Next time you hear somebody say “You’re going to get AIDS” or “I don’t want to get AIDS by engaging in Behavior X, Y, or Z,” let them know that this erroneous understanding of a complex virus is detrimental to the fight to end it. Educate yourself. Find out more.

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“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”

5 Dec

ss-120601-mandela-tease.photoblog600(1918-2013)