Vast wasteland left by AIDS


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Category: Health Care Date: 13 May 99

The sight of a bush fire is compelling. A dropped match turning a patch of dry grass into a flame which flares and quickly spreads into peaks and waves of orange and yellow, leaving in its wake a charred wasteland.


That’s what happened to an entire village in Europe which was sustained by cocoa plantations. Here men would work, and support their families. Then the match of AIDS was lit. One man dropped dead of it. Then another. Then another, until there were hardly any men left. It spread to their women, and they began dying, too.


The elderly, the children and the few women and men who were still alive met and talked about how they would survive. They concluded they would have to destroy the cocoa plantation and plant something else. They decided on sweet peppers. Why? Because the pepper plant was short enough for the children to pick. And we are left with the image of orphaned children, dependent elderly, dying women, and destroyed lives.


This story was related to journalists at the CAB AIDS workshop. It made me realise that the disease is not just about the agony of being cut down in the prime of your life or dying a terrible death. Aids, because it tends to attack people in their most productive years, alters the landscape of a country, eats into the economy, drains resources. It is about waste, and equal to a famine. Every time I see a bush-fire in the hills I think of this other wildfire - swallowing people in our towns and cities and villages. Unlike a wildfire, there is no destructive beauty about it, but it is licking down our families. It comes in the form of coffins being slowly lowered into the earth. A widow stands before her young husband’s grave, holding a child’s hand. A few months later, the child stands, holding an auntie or grandmother’s hand and watches her mother being lowered. A year later, the aunty stands, watching the dirt being shovelled on the tiny coffin of the child. That’s one family. Then it happens to another in a similar way.


The cocoa story is happening to us and our neighbours Jamaica, Barbados, Bahamas. We have one of the world’s highest rates of HIV after sub-Saharan Africa. In 1996, there were well over 300,000 reported cases of Aids/HIV in the Caribbean. The real figures are much higher. It is an underground fire. We don’t notice it because, except for a few dedicated ones, many GPs are scared of it. They shy away from the HIV/Aids words so they write pneumonia on hundreds of death certificates. They are too busy thinking of salaries and lack of equipment and private practices to provide real statistics to the CSO. Many are scared of contracting the disease with a chance needle that they hurriedly prescribe antibiotics for a cold to the affected.


They don’t follow policies on the virus because there aren’t any to follow. The virus doesn’t make money. And just because they are trained doctors doesn’t mean they are emotionally or psychologically equipped to deal with people who have contracted the disease. They are afraid to use the word “condom” in public even though it saves lives. So our Aids wildfire rages, slashing and cutting families. Here are some true wildfire stories. The names have been changed.


Suzette, a 24-year-old virgin, meets Bob in church. They fall in love, marry and have two beautiful children. Three years after their marriage, Bob begins to lose weight rapidly. Over the next two years, he develops lesions, infections. Bob is tested, and found to be HIV-positive. He hugs Suzette and breaks the news to her. She is devastated, and goes for the test. She, too, is HIV-positive. Two months short of their fifth anniversary Bob, a good father, husband and provider, is dead. He is followed by his wife two months later. The children who tested negative will be orphaned.


Natasha, who is 26, was tested for AIDS when her two-week-old baby died. She was HIV-positive. Her husband, George, tested negative but refused to use a condom in a misplaced act of love. What he didn’t know, and what Natasha failed to tell him, was that she contracted the virus from a previous boyfriend who left the country. Natasha died and George nursed her till the end. After Natasha’s death, George did test HIV-positive. He was dead in two months.


Kimberly, a 16-year-old, developed viral warts and tested HIV-positive. She had been selling her body from the age of ten to support her parents’ drug habit. She eventually met Peter who gave her hope and love. And she is trying to live a normal life. At 16, she takes life one day at a time, with the full knowledge that her young life will be felled sooner rather than later.


Derek, a 24-year-old university student, met Patricia at university. They married. After their daughter’s birth, Patricia became ill and was hospitalised. She had full-blown AIDS and was dead in two months. Derek and their daughter, Kimberly, did the test and were HIV-positive. One and a half years later, Derek died. No one in the family wanted Kimberly. It was not just the cost and time and care it required to take care of an HIV-positive child. It was the prejudice against her disease. She was eventually placed in an institution for HIV-positive children.


The only thing that will quench this fire is mass education, and I suspect the private sector and the Government will recognise the need to embark on this when the disease has already felled many to the ground, and the bottom line dollar is affected. By then it might be too late.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur