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A Vital Weapon Against HIV/AIDS

By C. Payne Lucas, Sr.

C. Payne Lucas, president emeritus of Africare, currently serves as senior advisor to AllAfrica Global Media and the AllAfrica Foundation. Following is a guest column by C. Payne Lucas, Sr., for Lucas is senior advisor to PAHF USA.

November 30, 2005 (Washington, DC) … The worldwide destruction brought on by HIV/AIDS cannot be overcome by an after-the-fact crisis management approach. We need a war mindset. The pandemic calls for a multi-pronged attack, especially in Africa, where the havoc has been most disastrous and threatens to undo 50 years of hard-won progress in public health, education, and development.

Some effective strategies are already being applied. Public health drives promote condom use and discourage multiple sex partners. Enlightenment campaigns target high-risk populations such as long-haul truckers. Further, there is increased distribution of subsidized medicines to HIV-positive people.

But there is another anti-HIV/AIDS weapon that promises to yield immediate, measurable results, although it is something Americans take for granted: disposable syringes, or, more precisely, auto-disable syringes. Auto-disable syringes employ an automatic mechanical locking device that ensures syringes can only be used once.

Unsafe sex is just one of several culprits in the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa. Another problem, seldom discussed, is the widespread re-use of syringes in cash-strapped, struggling hospitals, clinics, rural health centers, and drugstores around the continent. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly half of all syringes are re-used in Africa.

Syringe re-use is a tragic and avoidable contributor to the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and other blood infections in Africa. Unsafe syringes cause an estimated 100,000 new HIV infections per year, plus hundreds of thousands of cases of hepatitis B and C. With morbid irony, these contaminated syringes transmit diseases to people trying to get well or stay, including children getting immunizations.

Syringes are being re-used in African communities for one simple reason: auto-disable syringes are not widely available and affordable. The effort now being made by one nonprofit organization to build an auto-disable syringe factory in Port Harcourt, Nigeria would help prevent this avoidable tragedy.

The Pan African Health Foundation, whose mission is to fund sustainable projects to relieve the medical supply shortage in Africa, is raising funds for a factory that would produce more than 100 million such syringes each year. As an added benefit, the factory would use local labor to manufacture these life-saving supplies on a not-for-profit basis. This means the syringes will be available at subsidized rates that cover only the cost of production — well below prices charged  by for-profit manufacturers who ship their products at great expense from distant locations. Eventually, the Foundation also plans to build a factory that would produce mosquito nets for fighting malaria.

The syringe project has the full support of both Nigeria's federal government and the state government where the factory will be built. Last November, when the Foundation broke ground on the site of the future syringe factory, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo was there to lay the cornerstone and continues to be an enthusiastic supporter.

Some three million people died of HIV/AIDS in 2004 alone. More than two-thirds of these deaths happened in sub-Saharan Africa, exacting growing economic and social consequences. Those men, women, and children are vital to their families-as husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons. They are vital to their communities as teachers, farmers, traders, miners, police officers, nurses and office workers. The losses of these lives leave in their wake a growing orphan crisis, manpower shortages, and poverty, among other serious challenges.

To overcome the catastrophe, we must raise awareness, raise money, and do everything we can to find better ways to fight the disease effectively. That is why I have dedicated the balance of my career to ensuring that we win the war against HIV/AIDS in Africa. We must not let this virus undo the considerable strides that Africa has made in the past half century.

© Copyright 2005, All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media. Reproduced with permission.