African AIDS discussed

Participants in a day-long conference here on the African AIDS crisis found many things to blame.

Panelists blamed the stigma, taboos and denial that surround the disease in Africa. They bemoaned the cultural attitudes that give men control over all sexual encounters and ostracize women who ask their partners to use condoms. They decried corruption, governmental incompetence and the lack of medical infrastructure in many African countries.

The event was the Third Annual Conference on Health and Human Rights, “HIV/AIDS in Africa: The Critical Link Between Human Rights and Health,” hosted by the African Studies Center.

Of all the targets of blame, only one dared to show its face at the Feb. 2 conference in Houston Hall.

That face was Jeffrey Sturchio (Gr’81), a public affairs official at Merck & Co., Inc. Merck is one of the several AIDS drug manufacturers under fire for the high price of AIDS drugs.

During the final roundtable session, Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, alluded to the attacks on drug companies that had marked every session that day. “It was extremely brave of you to come here,” he said to Sturchio.

The companies seemed the easiest targets in a dire situation. Thirty-six million people in sub-Saharan Africa are HIV-positive. They comprise two-thirds of the world’s infected population. Life expectance in the region has declined 20 years.

Not suprisingly, given the topic of the conference, most speakers advocated treating AIDS as a human rights issue, instead of as a case for charity like an earthquake or other natural disaster.

Human rights language allows us to speak to governments of moral responsibility, said Rubenstein. Evelyn Shuster, director of the Human Rights and Ethics Program at the VA Medical Center, said thinking of the AIDS crisis as a human rights issue helps advocates make connections with related topics such as African nations’ international debt. Interest payments eat up large chunks of these nations’ annual gross domestic products.

During one of the audience participation sessions, AIDS activist Julie Davids, from ACT UP, urged participants to pressure American drug companies and the government to make AIDS drugs affordable overseas. “We need to think globally and target nationally,” she said.


Originally published on February 15, 2001