ZIMBABWE – In 1981 a lethal disease was reported among men who have sex with men in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco in the United States of America. Reports of the disease, which weakened the immune system leading to opportunistic infections such as Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis pneumonia and certain death, appeared in the media including here in Zimbabwe.
Former Minister of Health and now Presidential Advisor on Health Dr Timothy Stamps says it did not raise the alarm here because it was perceived to be a “gay thing”.
“The disease was exotic and affecting gay men. The Americans called it Gay Related Immune Disorder (GRID) so people here felt it was not a matter to be concerned with.” But the notion that AIDS was an expressly gay problem was turned on its head in July/August 1985 when the National Blood Service Zimbabwe (NBSZ) which supplies hospital blood banks with blood donated by members of the public started testing for the virus that causes AIDS.
Researchers had determined that the virus was transmitted through body secretions in including blood. The virus was then known as Human Lymphotropic Virus Type 3 (HTLVIII).
The tests revealed that there were Zimbabweans who were HTLVIII or HIV-positive. Dr Jean Emmanuel is the Medical Director of the NBSZ. He says Zimbabwe was one of the first countries to test all collected blood for the virus responsible for causing HIV/AIDS.
“Every blood donor found to be HTLVIII positive was rechecked and a confirmatory test was carried out on a second sample and all confirmed positive tests resulted in the patient being confidentially notified, counselled and recommendations made on life style changes and precautionary measures to prevent passing the virus to others, especially through intimate sexual contact,” said Dr Emmanuel.
But even after this scientific revelation, some politicians refused to acknowledge the gravity of the problem. Dr Emmanuel: “Unfortunately sensitivity on the issue of HIV/AIDS, through denial, fear and stigmatisation has taken many years to overcome and persists in many quarters even today.”
Dr Stamps was appointed Minister of Health in 1990 and immediately set about confronting the AIDS issue head-on, unlike some of his predecessors who had dithered in the face of mounting evidence that AIDS was a growing problem in Zimbabwe.
“The minister before me, Dr Felix Muchemwa, downplayed the prospects of AIDS becoming a problem,” DR Stamps says. He added that there was also the theory about HIV being the result of jealous husband using “runyoka”, a “central locking system” that causes a lover who has sex with his wife inexplicable and painful illnesses that often lead to death.
His outspokenness riled many including the late Members of Parliament Sydney Malunga and Gibson Munyoro.
Addressing Parliament during a debate on rape, spouse battering and AIDS on October 23, 1990, Malunga accused Dr Stamps of being alarmist; “Talking too much (about AIDS), wastes too much time and chases tourists away. When tourists see the figure of 400 000 about to die of AIDS, how do you hope to attract tourists into the country?”
Munyoro chimed in; “The nation of Zimbabwe understands very well the problems involved and that it is a killer disease and it is no use keeping on saying it . . . do not be alarmist”.
He blamed rape on the unemployed, “ . . . what do you expect a person who is lying under the flyover to Highfield, unemployed, what do you expect him to do?” The fact that he was ordered to shut up albeit in parliamentary language by the Speaker of the House when he went on a tangent about “ . . . this zebra crossing where pedestrians are being terrorised by motorists . . ” exposed the level of a lack of appreciation of the gravity of the subject he was supposed to be addressing.
Others also used Parliament as a platform to suggest summary action against HIV-positive people. In August, 1994 Chief Nathaniel Mutoko suggested murder as a solution; “If a pregnant woman is found to have AIDS, she should be killed so that the AIDS ends there with her,” he said.
Though there clearly was a political conspiracy of denial and downplaying the problem, Dr Stamps says President Robert Mugabe was not a part of it. “I still remember as if it was yesterday the President saying ‘Pasi neAIDS!’ at St Theresa’s Makoni when I went on a tour of mission hospitals with him.”
The late Vice President Dr Joshua Nkomo also broke the mould when he attributed the death of his son to AIDS in 1996 albeit with the appendage that the disease was “harvested by whites to obliterate blacks. … (But) it backfired and they, too, are dying of it, but still they have the knowledge of its origins and how it can be cured. But they just do not want to share that knowledge.”
This at a time when most people who were suspected of dying from AIDS euphemistically died after “a short or long illness.” The other reason why AIDS remained largely under the radar was the lack of infected people publicly declaring their status because of the stigma attached to it. However, a few brave people did “come out”.
Two of the most prominent ones are Auxillia Chimusoro and Lynde Francis, who both went on to become AIDS activists. Chimusoro was diagnosed with HIV in 1987 and revealed her status on national television in 1989.
She died in 1998.
Francis who was diagnosed in 1986 died in 2009. A public debate was also going on and because during those early years a lot of people did not know anyone who was HIV positive or had died of AIDS, many dismissed the issue with some saying AIDS stood for American Ideas to Discourage Sex and a ploy to stop Africans from having sex and multiplying.
While condom use was being encouraged and promoted by the likes of Dr Stamps, a lot of people remained sceptical and kept having unprotected sex.
But it did not take too long before the mounting death toll convinced people that AIDS was not a product of somebody’s fertile imagination and condom use increased. In 1992, a company led by businessman Mr Stalin Mau Mau started installing condom vending machines in strategic places such as bars, hotels and in both male and female public toilets.
“Demand for condoms spiked but they were mostly available in pharmacies and most people were really inhibited and would not walk into a pharmacy to ask for condoms. The first machines were imported but then we decided to manufacture them locally,” he recalls.
Mr Mau Mau says business was very good until the economy’s accelerated downward spiral. “The Zimbabwe dollar was losing value. Our machines took the dollar coin and suddenly we were not making any money, we even tried to make some tokens instead of using cash but this made it more expensive for us, so we abandoned the project.”
Unlike in the United States, the AIDS virus in Africa is spread primarily through heterosexual sex just like any other sexually transmitted infection. But in any sexual network, the chance of exposure to the virus that causes AIDS is increased by having multiple and frequent sexual contacts.
Consequently, those who have the most frequent sexual contacts such as people who sell sex and their clients are most at risk. Women can also pass the virus on to their unborn babies. When AIDS hit Africa it, snowballed like an out of control savannah fire.
This led some western countries to blame the rapid spread on the mythical cavalier primitive sexual tendencies of Africans. As a result, some African leaders took a defensive stance and blamed the allegations on Afro-pessimism.
Dr Evaristo Marowa, a local venereologist, who like Dr Stamps took an early interest in AIDS when it became a health issue in the United States, says there was significant political denial in Zimbabwe.
“A number of politicians did not want to talk about it as it was characterised as a disease of promiscuity, gay people and also there was that notion from the West that it started in African monkeys and jumped species to humans.” This, he said, was interpreted by some as an insinuation that Africans were having sex with monkeys.