Africa: HIV/Aids Threatening Life Expectancy

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AIDS in AfricaFalling life expectancy is one of the most visible effects of HIV/AIDS in many nations and has reversed human development across a large part of Southern Africa, according to a new UN report.

In sub-Saharan Africa, life expectancy today is lower than it was three decades ago. "Several countries in Southern Africa have suffered catastrophic reversals: 20 years in Botswana, 16 in Swaziland and 13 in Lesotho and Zambia," the report said.

The annual Human Development Report 2006 noted that while most people in Southern African countries with relatively stable economies were not expected to reach the age of 50, the situation was even more worrying in Zimbabwe, where the economy was shrinking rapidly.

Zimbabwean women now have an average lifespan of 34 years, the lowest in the world, while men lived for an average 37 years.

Patrick Couteau, regional health and care advisor on HIV/AIDS for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told IRIN/PlusNews that the discrepancy in the lifespan between the sexes could be attributed to feminisation of the pandemic, as well as gender and economic inequalities.

"With women by far outpacing men in HIV prevalence rates, and with their limited access to life-prolonging care and treatment, it is no wonder that women are also more likely to die from AIDS-related illnesses before their the male counterparts do," he said.

Couteau estimated that women aged 15 and over constituted 89,000 (69.4 percent) of the 1.5 million people living with the HI virus in Zimbabwe, and said this was a direct result of unequal power relationships, which left women and young girls at a great disadvantage when trying to access prevention, treatment and care services.

"This is because they are able to exercise less control over decision-making, especially in fragile economies like this [Zimbabwe's]. Whatever limited resources there are will almost always be allocated to men first, leaving women and young girls to scramble for treatment that is already too costly," said Couteau.

According to the report, 57 percent of HIV-infected people in Sub-Saharan Africa were women, and young African women (aged 15-24) were now three times more likely to become infected than men of the same age.

With over 39 million people living with HIV globally, and 3 million people having died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2005, Couteau recommended that new and more realistic approaches be considered to combat the pandemic.

 In our efforts to mitigate the impact of this disease we need to consider striking at both a national and community level. National policy is welcome, but rarely influences the individual," he said. "Communities must be mobilised; reshaped as support structures for the empowerment of women and children."

Access the complete UN report: http://hdr.undp.org/hdr2006/report.cfm

source - All Africa