A new study which concluded that Zimbabwe experienced a huge decline in the rate of HIV infection over the last decade, has been criticized by observers as ‘too simplistic’. The study, published on Tuesday in the Public Library of Science Medicine, said the country’s HIV infection rate declined by almost half between 1997and 2007. And the reason given was ‘a change in sexual behavior due to fear of infection’.
But observers have criticized the report, saying it ignores many factors related to the ongoing political, economic and social crisis that has engulfed Zimbabwe since 2000.
The researchers, based at Imperial College in London, said the infection rate had dropped from 29 percent to just 16 percent in that period. They praised educational programs, saying the decline was the result of ‘increased awareness’ of AIDS related deaths, leading to a change in people’s sexual behavior as they feared catching the virus.
But Emmanuel Gasa, director of The AIDS and Arts Foundation (TAAF), said the research method was inaccurate since it did not take into account the many infected Zimbabweans who cannot afford to travel to clinics to be evaluated.
“Not everyone will go for tests. The rate of promiscuity is actually very high because of the unemployment rate which is over 90 percent,” said Gasa, alluding to those who have turned to prostitution to earn money to feed their families. This contradicts the researchers, who concluded that men were less promiscuous because they could not afford multiple partners.
Gasa also pointed to the many millions who have left the country to escape violence and unemployment, and ‘exported’ the disease. He said those in exile and those who have died affect statistics, within the general population considered by the report.
Gasa, whose organization uses the arts to spread information on HIV, said many NGO and church clinics were destroyed during ‘Operation Murambatsvina’ in 2005, when the government bulldozed homes and businesses, displacing nearly one million people. This severely disrupted treatment programs for many infected people around the country.
“There are many displaced people at Caledonia outside Ruwa and at Hopley Farm near Harare, with no access to health institutions,” said Gasa, referring to informal settlements where families live in shacks and have no running water.
He appealed to major institutions like the United Nations to engage civic groups like TAAF, in order to penetrate the segment of Zimbabwe’s population that has been ignored. He said doctors and ‘technocrats’ are the only ones usually consulted, but they have little access to rural populations.