Clem Sunter

The sound of silence

2009-07-07 13:52

"Hello darkness my old friend. I've come to talk with you again." These are the opening lines of The Sound of Silence, a popular song of the 1960s by Simon and Garfunkel. The theme of the song is about the inability of people to communicate with one another.

As South Africans, we at times fall into this chasm - and no more so than in the field of HIV/Aids. I was having lunch the other day with a friend who has made a big difference in the fight against the virus. I asked him what the current statistics were. His response was: "Around 1 000 deaths a day, around 1 000 new infections a day, so we are holding steady at about five and a half million people infected in South Africa. The average lifespan of a South African has fallen to 47 years."

The last figure ties in with the registered death curve for each age group which is produced annually. Since the late 1990s, the curve has featured a growing hump in the 26 to 30 and 31 to 35 age categories. These are people who have been infected in their teens and early 20s and died 10 to 12 years later. Obviously, the availability of antiretroviral drugs will hopefully diminish this premature hump in the death curve by allowing those infected to live longer. But the roll-out is taking time.

Meanwhile, what is really concerning is the way we have come to accept these statistics as the norm. Think about it. We don't really talk about the causes of the epidemic because we don't like talking in public about sex which is the main cause of transmission. We throw insults, we make jokes, the media dutifully report progress in their middle pages but the tragedy - and it is a real tragedy - passes most citizens by. I remember talking to one young man in an Aids hospice a few years ago. He said: "It feels like I've got a huge weight on my chest. It gets heavier every day, so one day I will no longer be able to breathe." He died 24 hours later.

I've been to a children's hospice in Pietermaritzburg. It is a kindergarten for children infected from birth. The lady in charge described how the kids blossomed until the age of four or five and then gradually faded away. I've watched a film about a young girl of 17 both of whose parents have died of Aids. When interviewed, she said that she had given up school to look after her younger siblings. She gave them breakfast in the morning, saw them off to school, spent the day cleaning the house, washing their clothes, buying food and household necessities with whatever grants she could obtain, and then gave them dinner in the evening and saw them to bed. Imagine that: giving up your education, your chance to make it in life in order to take on the full responsibility of being a parent. She accepted gracefully the cards that fate had cruelly dealt her even though it wasn't her fault.

We recently witnessed the huge coverage given to the Air France Airbus that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Two hundred and twenty-eight people perished in that disaster. Putting our Aids statistics into perspective, the equivalent is four airliners full of mostly young South Africans plunging into the sea every day of every month of every year. And yet silence accompanies their death because they die individually and the majority are from deprived backgrounds.

We should be ashamed and we should do everything to break the sound of silence. We should talk openly about ways to change sexual behaviour to minimise transmission of the virus. We should get the advertising agencies involved since it is their speciality to change behaviour. We should encourage people to get themselves tested and if they test positive seek the appropriate medical treatment. We should focus on compliance with the pill regimen and the fact that even when you feel better you can't stop taking the pills.

Finally we should openly praise all those heroes and heroines who have dedicated their lives to caring for the victims of the epidemic. They deserve national medals for their bravery and compassion.

Send your comments to Clem

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