Maseru: - The HIV virus is starting to take its toll in Lesotho, destroying the most valuable resource that the small mountain kingdom has, its people. Agnes Kalaka, at the UNICEF office in Lesotho, said last week that for a long time the disease was surrounded in secrecy and was an extremely sensitive issue. "It has been a big cultural taboo to talk about sexuality," she said.
A recent report by the Ministry of Health noted that by the end of December last year there were 7,317 reported AIDS cases. An estimated 3,242 of these were reported last year alone, a 30 percent increase in just one year. But the report cautioned: "The reported cases vastly under-estimates the actual magnitude of the epidemic".
According to the report most of the reported AIDS cases occurred among the 20 to 39 age bracket - with about 54 percent of these being female. It estimated that about 10 percent of the entire adult population was either HIV positive or living with full-blown AIDS.
Kalaka said that women in Lesotho have traditionally been unable to assert themselves sexually. She said that this was a particular problem for women whose husbands were migrant laborers on the South African mines. "Many of these men have multiple sex partners when they go away from home, and so bring back with them the possibility of HIV infection for their wives," Kalaka said.
It is estimated that 25 percent of the adult male population work or are resident in South Africa, where they generally stay in single sex hostels. Kalaka added: "If a woman were even to suggest to her husband that they use any form of protection, he would either think that she does not trust him or that she has something to hide".
According to the report by the Ministry, of those cases that did reveal their marital status, an estimated 70 percent said that they were married and that the infection must have come from their spouses. The report warned that new infections among younger age groups were also rising.
"There is a threat in a few years time that youth may not reach adulthood. Their education will be wasted and the economy will shrink," the report noted. "The reluctance of the more older and traditional Basotho to discuss sex and sexuality exacerbates the difficulty of reaching the youth," the report added.
One disturbing trend that has emerged is the number of children that are HIV positive or who have full blown AIDS. According to the report, 12 percent of all reported cases were among children under the age of four. Last year a total of 395 children in this age group were recorded as HIV positive.
According to UNICEF the government of Lesotho has shown a "clear commitment" to the AIDS epidemic and has declared it a "national epidemic."
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