June 4, 2007 / 9:31 AM / 13 years ago

AIDS seen as new threat to African democracy

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - AIDS may be killing elected officials in some Southern African countries faster than they can be replaced, creating a new threat to democracy and governance in the region, a new study said.

A man suffering from AIDS sits on a chair at the state general hospital in Congo's capital of Kinshasa October 28, 2006. AIDS may be killing elected officials in some Southern African countries faster than they can be replaced, creating a new threat to democracy and governance in the region, a new study said. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

The Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA) said a study of mortality patterns in South Africa, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia, Tanzania and Senegal indicated Africa’s HIV/AIDS crisis was reaching deep into elected governments.

“Our findings have shown there has been a sharp rise in the number of elected leaders that have died prematurely of illness,” Kondwani Chirambo, head of the governance and AIDS program at IDASA, said at a recent conference in Cape Town.

“If you compare the trends before the onset of the pandemic and after, we do see that patterns of death mimic the mortality pattern of the general population,” he said.

Chirambo’s research casts a new light on southern Africa’s HIV/AIDS problem as South Africa prepares for its biannual AIDS conference in Durban, which begins on Tuesday.

While the epidemic’s toll in human lives and medical expense is well documented, the study showed that HIV/AIDS is also responsible for political power shifts and extra strain on treasuries that have to organize by-elections, IDASA said.

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for about 25 million of the 39 million people worldwide infected with HIV/AIDS, a crisis that is increasingly felt across social classes.

Few deaths of public figures in Africa are openly attributed to HIV/AIDS, reflecting the deep stigma that continues to accompany the disease across the continent.

But signs are AIDS is taking its toll among politicians, just as it is with ordinary Africans.

In Malawi, a recent study showed that a total of 42 MPs have died between 1994 and 2006. In an official statement in 2000, the speaker of the national assembly attributed 28 of these deaths to AIDS-related causes, Chirambo said.

In neighboring Zambia, in the 20-year period between independence in 1964 and the first reported AIDS case in 1984, only 14 out of 46 by-elections were held as a result of death. Between 1985 and 2003, 102 by-elections have been held and, of those, 39 were a result of officials dying in office.

Between 1994 and 2006, 23 vacancies have been recorded in the South African parliament as a result of death.

Alan Whiteside, director of health economics and the HIV/AIDS research division at the University of KwaZulu Natal, said the new research showed the pandemic is having a cumulative impact on Africa’s institutions but that many countries are not equipped to deal with it.

“HIV/AIDS is having an impact not just on electoral institutions, but also on government and governance, and we have underestimated this impact,” Whiteside told Reuters in an interview.

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