HIV/AIDS AND YOUTHS: -WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE AN OPENING SPEECH BY THE HON. C. N. KEENJA (MP.) MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE AND FOOD SECURITY, AT THE FORUM ON SEXUALITY AND HIV/AIDS, NKRUMAH HALL, UNIVERSITY OF DAR ES SALAAM, SATURDAY OCTOBER 20, 2001

1.  I would like to thank you and the organizers of this Workshop for giving me the privilege of opening it and thus participating in it.  As a Member of Parliament for this area, this invitation provides me with an opportunity to meet a part of my electorate and to discuss an issue of great national importance.  Thank you very much.

 2.     The spread of the HIV/AIDS pandemic has reached alarming levels, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa which has only 10% of the World population but accounts for over 80% of HIV infections and deaths from AIDS.  Infection levels vary from country to country.  In Tanzania it is estimated that over 10% of the population has already been infected while higher infection levels have been reported for several countries in Southern Africa.  Testing done on expectant mothers attending clinics has revealed infection rates as high as 25% or one expectant mother in four.  In the absence of voluntary testing facilities, the reliability of available statistics is questionable.

 3.     In recent years, the campaign against HIV/AIDS has been greatly enhanced under the personal leadership of the President of the United Republic, His Excellency Benjamin William Mkapa and the government, religious organizations, Non-Government Organizations and etc.  The intensification of the campaigns is a very important stage in combating the spread of the virus and the disease.  In all countries which have recorded decreases in the spread of HIV/AIDS, the first important step was to ‘break the silence’ and to discuss the pandemic publicly and in a way which reaches the whole population.

4.     My personal observation is that the message is reaching the people all the way to the remotest villages.  Our people know how the disease is spread and what they need to do to avoid being infected.  They also know that the disease has no cure and that the discovery of a vaccine still eludes us.  Whether they practice what they know is a different matter.  The responsibility of the government and the Community at large is to ensure that people have as much information on HIV/AIDS and what they must do to avoid being infected as possible.  We have no choice except to leave them to decide whether or not to follow the advice availed to them.

5.     I think it is probably too early to notice decreases in infection rates, particularly bearing in mind the fact that testing facilities for HIV infection are restricted to hospitals, most of which are in urban centers and thus not available to most of the population.  Even if we noticed changes in infection rates, it would be imprudent to ascribe them to any one intervention.  I would like to take this opportunity to commend the President and all those who have been active in sensitizing the people to change their sexual behaviour so as to avoid infection.  Even in the absence of statistical evidence, I feel confident that a large number of rational people have changed their ways for the better.  Have you not!  Whatever the case, they know what they ought to do to avoid infection.

6.     We all acknowledge the fact that the HIV has infected a big proportion of our population. and a big number of people have died from AIDS or opportunistic infections caused by Aids.  Breaking the Silence and intensification of the campaign against HIV/AIDS led by the top leadership of the Nation is an important step but by no means the only step required to check the devastation of the disease.  We need additional measures to complement the campaigns and we are all aware that other measures are being undertaken by the government and other groups.  I would like to touch on some of these measures.

7.     It has been established that the most adversely  affected segment of the population is between the ages of 15 and 45.  This is most unfortunate because this segment is composed of the most active work force and any adverse effect on it will have a direct effect on the economy and general welfare of the Nation.

8.        Closer examination of this group reveals that most of its members are to be found in schools and institutions of higher learning, in the armed forces or as employees of the government and the private sector.  They largely constitute a ‘captive’ population which can be reached through their institutions.  This is an advantage which must be capitalized on.

9.     It has been recommended that representatives of this group should be trained to act as animators to their colleagues because they are likely to be more effective than outsiders: they know their colleagues and they can reach out to them to advise them to take appropriate measures to avoid HIV infections.  This group can also help to sensitize the general public on the pandemic and to advise the public on ways of avoiding infection and spreading of the virus.  They thus constitute an asset which must be used in the war against HIV/AIDS.

10.        There are groups of young people which need to be assisted beyond sensitization.  There are young women who have been forced into prostitution due to poverty and failure to get employment.  The public must find ways of helping this group by providing them with the means needed to enable them to engage in less dangerous and gainful employment in agriculture, commercial activities and in small scale industries.   In this way, some of them could be removed from the streets, bars etc. and helped to lead more decent lives.

11.        AIDS leaves behind poor orphans because it tends to kill both parents after long and expensive illness.  The society must find ways of bringing up these children by providing them with shelter, food, adult care and education otherwise the country will have serious problems when these children grow up.

12.        Other interventions include the use of drugs to prevent the spread of the diseases from infected mothers to their infants and to elongate life and medical care for those already infected.

13.        What we must accept is that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is basically a social problem which ought not be left to the government or to the Ministry of health.  Measures must be taken, therefore, to empower communities to take steps to halt the spread of the disease and ultimately to lead to its decline.  The youth are in a better position to bring about the desired changes than any other group in our country.

14.   We must also accept that all possible measures must be applied together.  We must continue to intensify the campaign against HIV/AIDS through the mass media, through contacts with communities at all levels and through technical and political fora.  We must recruit and train animators within vulnerable groups who can reach their peers and urge them to change their behaviour to check the spread of HIV/AIDS, we should also find gainful employment for those who find themselves in situations which force them to engage in activities which expose them to infection and finally, drugs should be made available to those already infected.

15.   So far I have said nothing about the use of condoms or the practice of what is called ‘safe sex’.  Young people should be encouraged to abstain from sex outside marriage and where they find this difficult, they should get married and remain faithful to their partners.  They should, however, know that condoms can protect them from infection but that protection may not be complete.  Condoms should be made readily available and affordable.  I think we are putting too much emphasis on the use of condoms and what is called safe sex.  Some posters seems to send out the wrong message particularly to young people.

16.        Finally, our religions should take active part in encouraging the society to observe the rules laid down in the Holy Books on sex and they should create youth groups to discuss and strategies on ways of avoiding the spread of HIV/AIDS.

17.   It will take a long time before a cure or a vaccine for HIV/AIDS is found and while the struggle to find such cure or vaccine continues, the disease continues to kill its victims and to wreck havoc on the economies of the poor countries most affected by the disease.  We must change our sexual behaviour if we and our country are to survive.

        Thank you.  I now declare your workshop open.