Blessed Gérard's Hospice: The right project in the right place at the right time.

Reading the current AIDS statistics in our region makes one feel like in a horror movie. Yet there are still many who deny the facts because they want to prevent panic among the population.

Six million South Africans will be infected with HIV in 2005.
Most of them are from kwaZulu/Natal.
In the same year, the number of people suffering from AIDS in South Africa will reach an incredible 1.5 million.
The proportion of people infected with HIV in kwaZulu/Natal is 26.6% (according to the Department of Health).
Nationally, the average rate of people infected with HIV is 16% (according to the latest prenatal screening survey).
Last year, the rate was 14%.
In the last seven years, 150,000 people have already died of AIDS in kwaZulu/Natal.
In just two years, the number will have doubled.
Research shows that AIDS mortality will peak in 2014. Then 130,000 people will die of AIDS every year.
Last year, AIDS claimed more victims than all other causes of death combined.
In 2006, a total of more than one million people will have died of AIDS.
Without a cure, this number will grow to two million by 2016.
Although South Africa had the lowest infection rate on the African continent a few years ago, the epidemic is now growing fastest compared to the other countries (according to Dr Garth Japhet).
Estimates say that by the year 2000, between 40 and 50 million people worldwide will be HIV-positive.
(Source: Daily News, 4 June 1998)

AIDS tests in Empangeni, 80 km from Mandini, show that 45% of the patients tested are HIV positive.
At the Sundumbili clinic, 60% of patients were found to be HIV positive in 1998.
A company nurse at a large factory in iSithebe estimates that 80 % of the workers there are infected with the virus.
A nurse at the hospital in Stanger suspects that up to 100 % of the patients in her ward are HIV-positive.
We cannot check these statistics for accuracy and do not mention them to cut with them. Nor do we know why our region is considered the worst hit by AIDS infection.

When we planned and built Blessed Gérard's Care Centre in Mandeni, we were not aware of the true extent of this development. Our main concern was to care for the many people suffering from all kinds of illnesses when their relatives are unable to care for them adequately. Now, after two years, it is becoming more and more apparent that we did exactly the right thing at the right time in the right place.

Be it a happy coincidence or divine providence: We are well prepared for the AIDS wave that is upon us. In our well-equipped care centre and hospice, our employed staff and volunteers can take care of AIDS patients who would otherwise be neglected.

It is frightening that many families want to get rid of their relatives who have AIDS. This is in stark contrast to Zulu tradition, where sick family members are usually very well cared for. We found that fear of infection is the reason for this. In addition, there is a lack of knowledge about how to deal with AIDS patients without exposing themselves to the risk of infection. That is why we combine our home care with detailed counselling for the relatives. We show them where caution is required and which measures they can take safely so that they can care for the affected person without fear.

AIDS and traditional healing methods

It is worrying that many Zulu in the area trust their traditional medicine men more than modern medicine. This would not be a big deal if they were only taking herbal substances that can give them subjective relief. In one widespread treatment method, medicine men use razor blades to cut many small incisions in the skin of HIV-positive people and then rub "medicine" into the resulting wounds. If they use the same razor blade on the next patient, the treatment of one becomes a fatal side effect for the other.

To make matters worse, about half of AIDS patients suffer from pulmonary tuberculosis. Many refuse to take medication out of a lack of understanding that this is really necessary.

Effective treatment is also jeopardised by the superstition that inducing vomiting "cleanses the body". Taking medicines prescribed by doctors thus becomes pointless if they are immediately vomited up again.

Many relatives think they cannot bear the sight of their dying relative and therefore banish him from the family circle.

Worst of all, however, is the widespread rumour that one can fight AIDS through sexual contact with a virgin. Countless rapes of girls, often as young as three years old, are the sad consequence. The suffering of these children through the physical mutilation, the psychological trauma and the transmitted HIV infection is indescribable.

Existing fears cannot be eliminated by threats or punishments. Only extensive education and confidence-building can help.