Skip to Content
Advanced Search

AIDS: The Plague that Knows no Boundaries

Pekkanen, J. & Naccache, U. (1987, June). AIDS: The Plague that Knows no Boundaries. Reader’s Digest.


(Download AIDS: The Plague that Knows no Boundaries overview as a PDF)

The issues of the origin, extent, reporting, and treatment of AIDS are all sensitive matters. This article is not especially sensitive, but it is a piece of investigative reporting that helps us approach the subject.

There is no solid, scientific evidence pointing to the origin of AIDS. It is therefore very understandable why African governments should strongly object to Western theories that AIDS came from African monkeys. Developing countries with limited resources should not be told by outsiders how to handle an epidemic that threatens us all.

As of February, 1987, 91 countries had reported cases of AIDS. The official report from African countries was 2,627.

When a person is infected by the AIDS virus, his or her body begins to produce antibodies that label the blood as HIV-positive. Only a fraction of those infected escape the breakdown of the immune system that leads to certain death from other infectious diseases such as pneumonia or skin cancer. So, death can be cited as due to AIDS or the attending diseases.

Statistics suggest that between ten and thirty percent of those contracting the AIDS virus develop full-blown AIDS within five years. One German study reports that 75% will develop the illness within fifteen years. Many researchers suspect that the number of ‘healthy carriers’ who eventually develop AIDS may near 90%.

Further complicating the crisis is the fact that HIV-infected Africans are exposed to a multitude of conditions AIDS experts call "co-factors":

To what extent these co-factors increase the susceptibility to AIDS is not well understood, but they all affect the body’s immune system (and susceptibility to the AIDS virus) to some degree. Infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria, as well as malnutrition, are suspected of playing a role. Likely co-factors are other sexually transmitted diseases...Pregnancy seems to be emerging as a factor as well.

High rates of pregnancy, of malnutrition, malaria, and sexually transmitted diseases would seem to make Africa vulnerable to AIDS infections and explain its high positivity among women.

Western writers quickly blame official reporting of AIDS. You often hear folks say, or the media report, that African countries fail to comprehensively report AIDS cases out for fear of its effect upon tourism. The reality may be that people are kept in hospitals for attending diseases because being labeled a terminally-ill AIDS case might send them out of the hospital to infect others. For whatever reasons, it is commonly recognized that actual cases of AIDS far exceeds official reports.

Some stunning statistics:

  • In Kinshasha, Zaire, a city (in 1986) of four million, tests of thousands of blood samples revealed 6-7% were HIV-positive.
  • A broad-based study in the Zambian capital of Lusaka found 18% of blood donors were HIV-positive.
  • In Nairobi, 4% of street prostitutes tested HIV-positive in 1981. In 1985, this figure had risen to 59%. In a 1986 study, 67% of the street prostitutes tested were HIV-positive.

In 1983, Peter Piot, a microbiologist at Antwerp’s Institute of Tropical Medicine, helped make the first confirmation of AIDS in Africa. Contrasting official 1987 figures, he said, "My guess is that several million are now infected."

In towns of Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya around Lake Victoria, rates are very high. One hears of small towns and villages where three to five deaths from AIDS occur a day. "Hardest hit are sexually active adults between ages 20 and 39." Intravenous drug users are also being infected at high rates and spread the infection to urban prostitutes. The difficulty of screening HIV-2 increases the risk of contracting the infection through blood transfusion.

The increase of AIDS attributed to contaminated blood muliplies because of special health problems requiring transfusions. One such illness is sickle-cell anemia, a genetic disease that damages red blood cells. Of the 150,000 children born with sickle-cell anemia each year, two-thirds are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Another sickness demanding transfusions is malaria, which kills one million Africans annually. Many pregnant women in Africa need transfusions because of severe anemia from malaria, sickle-cell, and iron deficiency. One hematologist speculates that an obstetric bed in Central Africa uses ten times the blood as one in Europe or North America. And more blood transfusions obviously increase the risks of contracting AIDS.


  1. This worldwide crisis demands worldwide cooperation. The extent of AIDS in Africa and its limited resources needed for relief and development calls for cooperation in terms decided upon by medical authorities in African countries.
  2. Considering the extent of her task, Elizabeth Ngugi, AIDS coordinator in Kenya in 1987 said, "My fear is that too many other priorities are going to compete with AIDS, such as food production and education."
  3. Help needed for coping with this epidemic includes financial and technical assistance in areas such as protection of the blood supply, training for health workers, development of creative public informations programs, screening and counseling for women of child-bearing age, and research on AIDS in Africa.
  4. Contributions in this struggle may be sent to:

WHO AIDS Programme

Account No D3—100705

Swiss Bank Corporation

WHO Branch Avenue Appia

1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland

Dean Borgman cCYS