Address by H.E. Dr. Negaso Gidada

President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia

To the First International Conference on  "AIDS" in Ethiopia

7th November,  1999

Addis Ababa

Honourable Ministers,

Dear participants,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

 I take pleasure in welcoming you all to Addis Ababa to participate in the First International Conference on AIDS in Ethiopia - Fighting for life.  Combating AIDS is of vital importance to this country and, indeed, to all nations.  AIDS does not respect borders.  It is a socio-economic challenge faced by every nation and every social group.  Strategies for controlling this epidemic can only come through cooperation.

 Since the time of its occurrence the spread of HIV and AIDS has been dramatic.  Worldwide, it is estimated that over 34 million people are HIV-positive.  About 21 million of these victims are from the African continent.  According to a report from the Ethiopian Ministry of Health, AIDS has already infected an estimated number of 2.5 million people in Ethiopia.  One of every thirteen adults in this country is infected with the virus.  In the most affected urban areas, the ratio of infections is closer to one out of every six adults. 

  This  figure  is  similar  to  what we see in most urban areas in Sub-Saharan Africa.  What this means is that the demographic, economic, and social effects of AIDS are enormous.  The epidemic consumes our resources and requires that we divert resources and manpower from our development endeavour to AIDS-related activities.  We have to assign most of our hospital beds to the victims who need critical care. 

 AIDS decreases the life expectancy of the population and increases the mortality rate.  AIDS is also the main contributor to the reemergence of other diseases, such as tuberculosis (TB).  If we do not work together; if we fail to collaborate in looking for remedies, AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa will continue to spread and continue to kill.  I expect that you will hear in the conference in the coming days that the virus circulating in this part of the continent is causing one of the fastest growing AIDS epidemics in the world.

 Multiple factors might contribute to the rapid spread of AIDS in the sub-region.  Poverty and illiteracy are the evil enemies of any society.  In many cases, economic difficulties and lack of knowledge are conditions that make victimization by HIV/AIDS possible.  The expansion of cities and towns in the last two decades has been fueled by the migration of people from rural to urban centers.  The attendant destitution, lack of awareness and lack of adequate knowledge of urban living can make rural migrants vulnerable to HIV infection.

Honourable Delegates,

 The complexity of the problem demands an integrated and multi-disciplinary approach to its solution.  Experiences must be shared across borders.  What worked in AIDS prevention programs for one country should act as a stimulus of hope to launch nationally-based programs in countries struggling to cope with the growing number of AIDS cases.  Nations should join together to enhance their activities to combat the AIDS epidemic.  Efforts we make today can stop the suffering of future generations.

 Here I would like to take the opportunity to express most sincere appreciation to Wizero Elleni Gebreamlak  West for having taken the initiative for organizing this event and for making all the necessary effort to ensure the success of this First International Conference on AIDS in our country.  She did it with great perseverance and dedication and without giving up hope --- an example which we all should follow in the fight against this calamity.

Honourable   Delegates,

 As I noted earlier, AIDS affects every social group.  It is taking the lives of thousands of our citizens, be they old or young, educated or uneducated, rich or poor.  AIDS does not discriminate, but the young are the most frequent victims of this disease.  As this sector of the population contains the skilled manpower in any nation, the loss of the young can result in declining economic and social development.

  In Ethiopia, like many African countries, we have an extended family system.  When one person is infected with the virus it can have a devastating effect on the remaining family members and friends.  It is the primary responsibility of the immediate families and friends to purchase drugs, pay for medical services, and provide care and support.  All these require time and money.  The young take care of the elderly and the hildren.  As AIDS spreads in the younger generation, children will lose their caretakers and join the myriad of orphaned children in the community.

 In Africa the number of children infected or orphaned by AIDS is ever increasing.  In Ethiopia alone the number of AIDS orphans is estimated to be over 700,000.   This places an enormous burden on our child-welfare programs.

Honourable Delegates,

 Almost half of the HIV-infected people in Ethiopia are women.  As is the case with other sexually transmitted diseases, women are more vulnerable to HIV than men.  Women are still in the lower social and economic strata.  Women driven by economic necessity can easily be exposed to the danger.

 Many of our young women still face harmful traditional practices such as circumcision, problems of abduction and rape.  Unwanted pregnancies are common.  Fear of stigmatization and rejection from the society drive many girls to abandon their families and migrate into urban centers.  This increases their chances of being infected with HIV.  It requires tremendous effort to ensure that the law protects these women and that society respects and understands them.

Honourable Delegates,

 Although AIDS is a medical concern, the responsibility for finding solutions should not be left only to the medical community or  medical  institutions.  Social problems require social responses.  In order to fight AIDS effectively, we need to form a partnership between the government agencies, non-governmental organizations, the business community, private citizens, HIV-infected people, and AIDS activist groups.  For instance, health clinics, social service agencies, non-governmental organizations, religious institutions, and schools may play a key role in helping children and the young to keep AIDS at bay. Communities and governments should work hand-in-hand to find solution to this growing problem.  Failure to do so is a recipe for human disaster and catastrophe.

 In this regard, I would like to pay tribute to the "Dawn of Hope Ethiopia" association, established with the noble objective of contributing its share in containing the alarming spread of HIV-AIDS in our country and protect the future generation from HIV-AIDS epidemics.  The objectives and programmes of this association are worth emulating by other members of the civil society.

 In our country, efforts to contain the spread of HIV-AIDS have been made since mid 1980s.  Accordingly, in 1987 the National AIDS Control Programme was established within the Ministry of Health.  To complement the effort of the Programme some civic groups had undertaken awareness creation activities on effects of AIDS.  However, the efforts lacked coordination and could not produce any meaningful results.  The recognition of this reality led the Government of Ethiopia to formulate an "HIV-AIDS" policy.  This policy is aimed at creating a conducive environment for enhanced partnership among the Government, the civil society and the international community to fight the disease.  Currently, in order to mobilize all sectors of the society against this disease the Federal Government is designing a comprehensive programme and is in the process of establishing a National Council which will see to it that the programme is implemented.

Honourable   Delegates,

 The epidemic undermines our efforts to build our economy and prevents our helping people to make a decent life. It deprives our children of their parents, our men and women of their ability to care for their families, and our country of the enterprise and ingenuity of a whole generation.

 This Conference on AIDS in Ethiopia - Fighting for Life-is viewed as sign of hope and its proceedings are being watched by millions of citizens of this nation.  The battle against AIDS is bound to be strengthened  by this Conference.  But, this is not merely a Conference for Ethiopia.  It will provide information valuable to other African nations, and for all developing countries attempting to deal with the AIDS crisis.  You must take the experiences you gained from this Conference and share them with the world.

 During this 4-day conference, I believe that you will share your knowledge and commitment with your Ethiopian colleagues.  If we work together we  will move closer to a solution to this pressing problem.  If we work together, we can defeat our enemy.

 I would like to conclude by repeating what Mr. Cornel West, Wizero Elleni Gebreamlak's husband, has said in Restoring Hope: "Never give up because there is joy in the struggle for compassion, the struggle for freedom."  Also, as Kelvin Shawn Sealey has said "life is too important for us to do anything else, therefore, let us have vision, courage and hope" and we shall overcome, because it is possible to overcome HIV-AIDS if we do something and if we do it in struggle.

I thank you!