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Using Information Communication Technology in HIV/AIDS Education and Prevention in Africa

“The most important message should be that we should challenge
and fight this pandemic relentlessly. We should be as fearless as
Chantika Nkhoma who said ‘I have no fear. I live with a killer already.’
Infected or affected, we all have a responsibility to play our part in
eradicating this scourge.” (Ama Ababio, Zimbabwe teacher) (1)

Without question, Africa has been severely impacted by the AIDS pandemic, with men, women, and children suffering equally. Three decades after the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), African countries carry an HIV/AIDS burden 100 times that of industrialized countries. Tens of millions of adults live with HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa and the prevalence rate of youths (ages 15-24) infected with the disease is alarming. Today, Africa leads the world in HIV/AIDS cases.   While Africa’s sub-Saharan regions contain only 13 percent of the global adult population, the vast majority of people living with AIDS or HIV infection are located in sub-Saharan Africa.  

Within the African continent, there are geographic variations in the distribution of the HIV/AIDS cases.  The eastern and southern countries have been hardest hit by the pandemic. For example. in Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe around 20-25% of adults are infected with HIV. According to UNAIDS data, Botswana has 35.8%, Lesotho 23.2%, and Swaziland 26.1%, compared to countries such as Somalia and Senegal where the HIV prevalence is under 1% of the adult population. West Africa has been less affected by AIDS, but the HIV prevalence rates in some countries are creeping up. HIV prevalence is estimated to exceed 5% in Cameroon (5.1%) and Gabon (5.9%).

UNAIDS estimates that in virtually any country where15% or more of all adults are currently infected with HIV, at least 35% of boys now aged 15 will die of AIDS.

The overall HIV prevalence rate among African youth shows the continuing need for HIV/AIDS educational prevention activities targeted specifically for the young people who are not yet affected.

The fact that sub-Saharan Africa is both the AIDS epicenter and the poorest region of the world is no coincidence.  In Africa, AIDS is very much about poverty and related environmental effects.   Severe poverty, famine, war, economic crises, gender inequality, political turmoil, lack of medical facilities combined with shame and secrecy undermine prevention efforts.  Gender inequality interacts with poverty, in that poverty plays a role in structuring dependent relationships with a male partner, within and outside of marital relationships.  Simmons and his colleagues note that women and young girls who are pressed to maintain stable relationships with husbands or short-term liaisons with lovers are often extremely vulnerable because, in many cases, they are not in a position to refuse unsafe sex. According to him, sex workers whose major source of subsistence comes from the sale of sex to multiple partners have been severely affected by the virus.  In their article titled “HIV infection among lower socioeconomic strata prostitutes in Nairobi” published in AIDS, Simonsen, Plummer, and Ngugi note that the sexual politics of AIDS are “ linked to women’s need to secure economic resources, a need for heightened by changing demographics, migration, war, and unjust or failed economic policies.”   

Cultural attitudes about sex and cultural myths must also be considered.   A resistance to use condoms because they interfere with pleasurable intercourse is often noted.  In addition, discussion of sex is often taboo and the meaning behind condom use varies culturally.   

In addition to harmful cultural practices, cultural myths about AIDS are rampant and interfere with prevention messages.  For example, some young African women believe that in order to grow up beautiful, they need periodic injections of sperm.  Ugandan men use this cultural myth to have sex with school girls.  In Southern Africa, the belief exists that HIV will go away if a man passes it on to a virgin.

Several strategies have been developed to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa; however, the AIDS-prevention strategies implemented over nearly thirty years have not squelched the fury of the epidemic. They have achieved limited overall success and the pandemic continues to devastate the African continent.   In spite of the numerous attempts to expand the response to HIV/AIDS, the role of information communication technology (ICT) in combating the pandemic has not been fully explored.  As more attention is drawn to the need for technology and culture-specific solutions to preventing the spread of AIDS, it becomes obvious that the continent must look to the role of information technology for answers. 

How can ICT be used to disseminate HIV/AIDS information; how can it contribute to the empowerment of people living with HIV/AIDS; and how can ICT improve upon ongoing and planned HIV/AIDS activities.

The Internet has ushered in a new era of communication and has made it possible for people in physically unconnected places to bond and connect. The Internet is able to bring together people who share a common interest and ideas. With the widespread use of  the Internet and other social media tools, a sizable number of people looking for HIV/AIDS information could now be reached through this medium in several African countries.

Virtual meeting technologies are technologies that enable people to “converge” at a meeting place without physically being present. Among such technologies are videoconferencing technologies, audio-conferencing technologies, web conferencing, teleconferencing, online collaboration tools, and a host of emerging technologies. These are powerful tools that could be used to promote HIV/AIDS education and prevention across the globe.

Special websites have been established to disseminate HIV/AIDS prevention messages. The most prominent ones are the United Nations AIDS (www.unaids.org), the World Health Organization (www.who.int/hiv/en), UNICEF (www.unicef.org/aids), and the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov/hiv). For example, CDC provides leadership for HIV prevention research and surveillance and the development by working with various health institutions around the world.

Online databases exist to provide daily briefing and hourly updates about the pandemic. One such database is AEGIS-the AIDS Education Global Information Systems (www.aegis.com).

Since early 2000, World Links and its project partners have been running the AIDSWEB project in secondary schools in Africa using information and communications technology (ICT) to promote HIV/AIDS education and prevention activities.  This World Links programme, AIDSWEB project uses ICT to reach youth in several African countries through HIV/AIDS prevention and information gathering activities.  Several AIDS workers have been trained under this project. This has helped raise awareness of HIV/AIDS among participants.

Early results from the project suggest that technology can play a complementary and useful role in helping combat this horrible pandemic.

Fact is, Africa should not always be last when it comes to the adoption of innovative technologies .

Nana Prof. Osei K. Darkwa, President
African Virtual Campus

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