Sobelson Visits Africa to Research AIDS Crisis

Grace, a young child in Kenya, contracted the HIV virus when she was forced to work as a child prostitute. Children like Grace are the norm in the Kibera slum, home to more than 1.5 million people, where HIV prevalence rates are among the highest in the world. Morissa Sobelson ’05 spent her summer getting to know children like Grace. She volunteered at schools and at the Nyumbani Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, a home for HIV positive children who have lost one or both parents to AIDS. Last Tuesday, Sobelson discussed her experience examining AIDS in Africa as part of her Abbot Scholar presentation. Sobelson’s presentation, entitled “A Silent Crisis: The Lives of AIDS Orphans and Children Made Vulnerable by HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa,” explored the human consequences of the AIDS pandemic and the way the disease is changing the demographics of Sub-Saharan Africa. Sobelson’s journey began last August when she traveled to Zambia. As she traveled to Sioma Falls, a small village in Zambia, Sobelson discovered a new form of poverty. She saw “babies with so many horseflies crawling around their eyes and noses that they lost physical sensation on their faces.” However, the most startling thing Sobelson discovered was the large number of children without any adult caregivers. “Whereas many other epidemics of the past have targeted the weak, the very young, and the very old, AIDS primarily affects young adults, killing people at their ‘productive peak,’ and therefore thinning out the middle generation, whom everyone else depends on for support,” Sobelson said. She continued, “Because these stories are so sad, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the AIDS crisis in Africa…not to be driven to the ground by the intensity of it.” HIV/AIDS is a problem on a global scale. Currently about 40 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS, and more than 70 percent of these live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Poverty and social instability in the region have allowed this disease to spread and created a vicious cycle of poverty, illness, and death. Sobelson explained, “AIDS is decreasing household income, food production, school attendance, and the quality of medical care.” All of these factors, in turn, lead to new infections. “My realization that there was a huge gap between the haves and have-nots, between the West and developing nations, made me curious on how AIDS and poverty are related,” Sobelson said. Sobelson emphasized the differences in care for HIV-positive patients in developing nations and those in America. In wealthier nations like the United States, most people can afford to spend up to $10,000 per year for antiretroviral therapy. However, medical care in a nation like Burundi, with a per-capita gross domestic product of $600, cannot meet these same standards. Less than one percent of people living with HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa can obtain these life-saving drugs. Sobelson pointed out that European colonialism, weak governments, external trade dependencies, and economic have played a major role in the spread of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sobelson believes that colonialism in particular has damaged African nations and their ability to cope with the HIV/AIDS virus. Many developing countries in Africa are still dependent on their former colonial overlords for trade and economic assistance, and in Sobelson’s opinion, this economic dependence has compromised the capacity of African nations to deal with the HIV/AIDS crisis. But however bleak the future of Sub-Saharan Africa may seem, Sobelson believes that with prompt action a solution to the AIDS crisis can be found. She concluded, “As more children die needlessly and silently, the very essence of our humanity commands us to keep searching and striving for that end. The time for education, awareness, and action is now. We must not wait any longer.”