Researchers in South Sudan are warning that the spread of AIDS threatens to pose a serious national security threat, but civilians and international organizations are being left in the dark because of the difficulty of tracking the disease and spreading awareness in the midst of the country’s ongoing civil war.
Already beset with impending famine and rival leaders who would rather ground humanitarian flights than participate in peace talks, an AIDS epidemic could push the world’s youngest nation over the brink. The Sudd Institute, an independent research organization based in South Sudan’s capital of Juba, released a report on Tuesday drawing attention to the rapid increase in AIDS cases in the small Northeastern African nation. According to the report, the World Health Organization’s 2011 estimate that just 3.1 percent of South Sudanese adults had AIDS is way off.
Researchers with the South Sudan HIV/AIDS Commission claim that, as a result of decades of war, South Sudan doesn’t have the data collection and analysis systems to gauge an accurate count. What we do know is that, in just over a decade, AIDS related deaths swelled from 6,900 in 2001 to 13,000 in 2012. To make matters worse, huge sections of South Sudan’s population lack basic information about how the disease is spread and, if infected, are often cut off from life saving treatment. Health workers seeking to remedy the growing AIDS crisis are hindered by ongoing fighting between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels led by Riek Machar.
South Sudan was fractured by the outbreak of civil war in December 2013, just under three years after the young nation gained its independence. Now, with time running out and both leaders boycotting peace talks, the stalemate threatens to exacerbate several public health disasters.
According to the Sudd Institute’s report, three out of four women in South Sudan lack awareness of how AIDS is transmitted and prevented. In Warrap and Jonglei states, which have witnessed some of the most intense fighting, awareness of AIDS prevention methods among the local population is in the single digits. “Cultural practices, lack of awareness, and the stigma associated with the virus, is the fuel that powers the spread of the virus throughout the nation,” according to the report. While unprotected sex between heterosexual couples remains the top cause of AIDS transmission, mother to child transmission is also a common cause. But the overwhelming majority of infected pregnant women in South Sudan don’t know how to keep from transferring the disease to their children, especially those living in the poorest, most war-torn areas of the country.
The report points to ongoing war as the driving force behind all the misinformation and lack of awareness about AIDS in South Sudan. Before its latest conflict, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army fought a 22-year-long war against the Sudanese military, finally culminating in the declaration of an independent South Sudan. The U.N. Security Council stated in 2001 that “social dislocation and rampant insecurity create fertile settings for HIV transmission.” Successive rounds of conflict in South Sudan have created these conditions, leading to the spike in AIDS.
Neither of South Sudan’s rival political leaders, President Salva Kiir or opposition leader Riek Machar, have been totally clueless about the urgency of confronting AIDS. In October 2013, just months before the war started, the President met with UNAIDS officials and promised to prioritize addressing AIDS awareness in youth. “If the young people are left vulnerable to the virus, there will be no country,” he said. Likewise, before he was dismissed from his post as Vice President, Riek Machar worked on a comprehensive program of public-private partnerships to respond to the spread of AIDS. However, since the conflict erupted in December, both leaders have shifted their attention to blaming each other for the country’s problems.
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.