HIV/AIDS in South Africa: The Social Pain Trapped in the Unraveled Ribbon
December 1, 2010 marked the 23rd commemoration of World AIDS Day, observed each year to raise awareness about the spread of the HIV infection and the AIDS pandemic. Tens of millions around the world gathered around to create awareness with protests, candlelit vigils, concerts, fundraisers, and most of all the red ribbons. The “Red Ribbon,” made famous when it was worn on the lapel English actor Jeremy Irons at the 1991 Tony Awards, has become synonymous with HIV /AIDS awareness. However, the ubiquity of the ribbons has made the awareness “politically correct” in the sense that it is a sign of sensitivity to the issue as a public interest, but does not necessarily denote an intimate understanding or attachment to the painful intricacies of the global HIV pandemic.
Now, pain comes in many textures. The various permutations for arranging its acute, dull or throbbing quality; its weeping, sobbing, or piercing mourn; or its political, social, or medical touch are endless. The danger of awareness campaigns like this is that they sometimes inadvertently bundle these complexities into a black box, wrap them in factsheets, and seal them with the brand of recognizable ribbon. While it’s important to laud large bodies such as the Susan G. Komen Foundation for making us pause before licking our pink Yoplaitâ yogurt foil tops, or pay an extra $2 for limited edition pink iPod case, how much does it help someone recognize the pathophysiology of the disease or suffering an affected family goes through?
Such is the case with HIV/AIDS pandemic, the ribbon, and associated stats. Though the numbers give us a sense of relative proportion and magnamity, the figures are blanched simplifications of what gives the epidemic its terrifying texture. According to UNAIDS, approximately 30.8 million adults and 2.5 million children are living with HIV globally and 2.6 million adults became infected in 2009. Furthermore, 5.6 million South Africans are living with HIV – with a 17.8% prevalence among those aged 15-49. Upon further scrutiny, almost one-in-three women aged 25-29, and over a quarter of men aged 30-34 are infected.
Of the 16 million children under 18 orphaned by AIDS, about 14.8 million live in sub-Saharan African. 4.5 million of these children are in South Africa and Nigeria alone which hold the top 2 positions for number of AIDS orphans in the world. The social disorder this disrupts in disturbing and will be exceptionally multigenerational in countries such as Zimbabwe where 16% of children are orphaned by AIDS or Botswana or Swaziland where the figure is 12%.
But, what does this all really mean and why is it happening? Over the next month, I will try to pay homage to the imagery behind these number by painting a Red Winter and setting a spotlight on the social troubles that have allowed one the world’s most deadly sexually transmitted and easily prevented diseases to thrive. I will particularly pay attention to the role language, sexual assault, and migrant work trends are influencing the spread of this disease. Thanks for staying tuned.
Harvard College Class of 2011
Bachelor’s Degree Candidate in Biomedical Engineering