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The HIV-AIDS pandemic may be the most dangerous
threat to Africa since the slave trade and colonialisation. Nearly 70% of all new HIV infections occur in Africa, south of the Sahara. Of the estimated 40 million people world-wide who are infected,
some 27 million are African, and they will die within less than five years of developing full-blown AIDS.

HIV infection rates among adults aged 15-49 range from a few percent in some
west African countries to over 30% in areas of southern Africa. The virus, which is mainly transmitted via heterosexual intercourse, affects young men and women between the ages of 15 and 24 in large
numbers, women more than men. The rate of infection amongst older people appears to be rising as well.

Last year alone, an estimated 800,000 children under 15 acquired HIV – over 90%
were new-borns who were infected through mother-to-child transmission, and about 90% of those were in sub-Saharan Africa. Thirteen million African children have been orphaned by AIDS and are obliged to
fend for themselves and their siblings.

Ignorance of the disease is widespread among young people, who are at the greatest risk. Half the teenage girls in sub-Saharan Africa do not know
that a healthy-looking person can be living with HIV/AIDS. In Mozambique, nearly three out of every four girls aged 15-19 were unaware of any way to protect themselves from infection.

Even though the number of HIV-infected people is staggering, the shame and stigma associated with AIDS impels many to deny its impact on their lives and to ignore the imperative to modify their
behaviour, thus undermining efforts to prevent its spread. Facing AIDS forces everyone to look anew at core human, spiritual values and at fundamental relationships between men and women.

Obviously HIV-AIDS drains African countries of their most precious resource: people. When a nation’s youth is lost to debilitating and fatal disease, it is ever less likely to develop economically,
maintain a vibrant culture and sound education, enjoy good governance and stability or show respect for fundamental human rights.

Concerns like these were widely shared during the XIV
International AIDS Conference held in Barcelona, Spain, 7-12 July, 2002. Over 14,000 delegates converged on the great conference centre and former Olympic facilities to learn about up-to-date medical
findings, discuss prevention and treatment measures, consider meaningful programmes and strategies to arrest the disease’s spread especially in poor countries, and to demand commitments from governments
and international institutions.

The International AIDS Conference combines scientific, activist, governmental and non-governmental approaches to the HIV-AIDS pandemic. Veterans say that
outright anger used to mark previous Conferences, whereas Barcelona 2002 was more an experience of shared frustration as a real cure or vaccine remain elusive, the pandemic is evidently spreading,
enormous resources are needed and have been promised but not delivered.

A key conclusion reached at Barcelona is that the debate between prevention and cure is obsolete and a waste of
time. Both are urgently needed, and efforts must be complementary, not competitive. Anti-retroviral drugs (using several drugs together in combination therapy to arrest or slow the spread of the HIV
virus and fight opportunistic infections) are proven to help prolong the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS. Annual costs have been brought down, notably in Brazil and Thailand, to about $300 per

While the HIV virus shows itself to be quite versatile, developing resistance to new drugs and surfacing in body tissue that was once thought out of its range, significant
scientific progress continues to be made. For the foreseeable future, however, no reliable vaccine is in sight.

AIDS cannot be treated without also tackling the other societal ills of
poverty and malnutrition that set the stage for opportunistic diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis to attack vulnerable people. Anti-retrovirals do little good if the patient lacks clean water and
a good diet, just as telling young people to be careful and responsible is practically futile when they see absolutely no future for themselves. The taboos, myths, ignorance, confusion and silence
around AIDS are also significant factors in complicating the struggle.

The conference ended on a high note. In a moving and electrifying speech Graça Machel challenged everyone to do
more to stem the spread of AIDS. “I can remember how nations worked together to overcome apartheid. Yet when it comes to HIV/Aids, we seem to be working individually and sometimes pulling in different
directions.” She appealed explicitly to religious institutions that have the most developed networks throughout Africa and that reach the remotest corners of each country.

“We are all
human,” her husband Nelson Mandela testified, “the HIV/AIDS epidemic affects us all in the end. If we discard the people who are dying from AIDS, then we can no longer call ourselves people.” Then he
and Bill Clinton launched the World AIDS Leaders Action Network and promised to campaign for financial commitments to reach the $10 billion set by UNAIDS as the annual minimum funding needed to make a
significant dent in the prevention and treatment of the disease.

“Belated but powerful” is how observers characterise the response of the Catholic Church to HIV/AIDS in Africa. The
Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Health Care estimates that 25%of all HIV/AIDS care throughout the world is sponsored by the Church. “What is emerging clearly in many areas throughout Africa,” reports
Sr. Alison Munro OP, AIDS Office Co-ordinator for the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, “is that people are taking seriously the call of the Gospel to love their neighbour in need.”

Five years ago, the Jesuit Conference for Africa and Madagascar (JESAM) agreed to begin networking on AIDS to support Jesuits who became involved in HIV/AIDS work or developed new initiatives in half a
dozen countries. Efforts include helping to raise awareness and so help prevent the spread of HIV in their communities, schools and parishes, ministering to the ill and the orphaned, taking stock of the
disease’s catastrophic consequences, and working for needed changes in society and culture.

Recently, JESAM decided to fortify the effort by setting up the African Jesuit AIDS Network as
a common shared work. It is to bring the patchwork of efforts together into an effective continental network with national projects that communicate and co-ordinate with each other and form the basis
for the African Assistancy’s corporate response to AIDS. The idea is, in each of the 25 African countries where there are Jesuits, to appreciate what is already being done and, on this basis, to develop
appropriate responses to AIDS. Such ministries should be deeply-rooted amongst those who suffer, accompany those who care for them, show sensitivity to the local culture, faith and spirituality, and
collaborate widely with others.

People suffering from HIV/AIDS need and deserve the same attention which our biblical tradition requires for “the orphans, widows and strangers in your
midst,” that is, a response which conveys God’s preferential love for our countless brothers and sisters who suffer.

Statement of JESAM Moderator
Nyakati zote maombi yetu yamejaa matumaini

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