AIDS: Not just a health issue

HIV/AIDS is not just a health issue - it is a problem of critical importance for development in general. This was the resounding message of the World AIDS Day Symposium held 2 December at FAO Headquarters in Rome.

The Chairman of the Symposium, Mr Henri Carsalade, Assistant Director-General of FAO's Sustainable Development Department, stressed the importance of the cooperation framework signed earlier this year between FAO and the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Source: UNAIDS, December 1999

In a key presentation to the symposium, Dr Werasit Sittitrai, Associate Director of UNAIDS' Department of Policy, Strategy & Research, emphasized the importance of interagency cooperation in coping with the AIDS epidemic. "Political will and funding from the highest levels of government are essential if AIDS campaigns are to be effective," he said, adding that this is an area where FAO can play an important role. "FAO has considerable influence with agricultural ministries, which are often the most important ministries in developing countries. By using this influence, FAO can do a lot to make sure that AIDS prevention remains a high priority issue when setting agricultural policies."

Although FAO's work has concentrated on sub-Saharan Africa, where the disease is most widespread, the symposium emphasized that HIV infection rates are increasing in other parts of the developing world as well. India and Southeast Asia are the regions most at risk. According to UNAIDS estimates, more than 33 million men, women and children, worldwide, are currently living with HIV/AIDS. Every day 15 000 more people become infected with the virus, and of these 95 percent live in developing countries.

Despite these grim figures, the symposium was not without hope. Dr Sittitrai presented a well-documented study from Thailand showing a decline in HIV infection rates when diverse government ministries, non-governmental organizations and grassroots community groups joined forces to raise awareness about the disease.

One of the reasons for the success of Thailand's AIDS awareness campaign is that it focused not only on informing the population about risky behaviour but also on reducing people's vulnerability to the disease. Engaging in unsafe sex or sharing needles puts a person at risk of being infected with HIV, Dr Sittitrai pointed out. But being vulnerable to the disease means that people - usually women or children - have little control over their exposure. For example, women living in rural poverty sometimes feel compelled to enter the sex trade, or their low social status often means they have little choice in their sexual partners. Therefore, the Thailand campaign focused on raising women's "bargaining power" in the community by emphasizing their role in providing household food, income and child care. Increasing the social status of rural women through educational programmes and small-scale commercial ventures has been an objective of FAO for years, and Dr Sittitrai reaffirmed that these activities constitute an important part in any successful AIDS prevention strategy.

Mr Kevin Gallagher from FAO's Global Integrated Pest Management Facility said that incorporating an HIV/AIDS component in all field training activities was essential in areas where HIV infection rates are high. "Our experiences in integrating AIDS messages in training of trainers are good. There has been unanimous agreement among participants in our field schools that AIDS education should be a permanent part of the programme."

Initially, AIDS prevention concentrated primarily on urban settings. However, FAO studies have revealed the extent to which the disease is decimating rural communities as well. At the symposium, Mr William Seiders, Rural Youth Officer with FAO's Extension, Education and Communication Service, stressed the importance of bringing AIDS initiatives to rural areas. As an example, he cited a new FAO project in Burkina Faso, funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), as well as a Technical Cooperation Programme project in Mali, which aim to enable youth to start rural-based income-generating projects. "In the long term, this should raise the participants' self-esteem and reduce their willingness to get involved in high-risk activities, which can lead to HIV infections," said Mr Seiders.

28 December 1999

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