GABON: Youth is more afraid of unemployment than AIDSLIBREVILLE, 17 February 2004 (IRIN) - In Gabon, where government spending is falling and unemployment is growing as the oil starts to run out, young people are more worried about getting a job than catching AIDS.
That doesn't help efforts to fight the disease in this relatively affluent country of 1.2 million people where 6.0 percent of the population is HIV positive.
President Omar Bongo, Africa's longest serving head of state, has declared the fight against AIDS to be a "national priority."
But the first outpatient treatment centre for people living with AIDS was only established in Libreville in 2001, antiretroviral drugs are difficult to obtain and there is a widespread view that government efforts to combat the pandemic are hampered by rampant corruption.
A recent survey of 15 to 26 year-olds carried out for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), showed that unemployment was their main concern in life, with catching AIDS in second place and poverty in third.
Slightly more encouraging was a survey of 4,500 secondary school pupils conducted by the government's National Plan for the Fight against AIDS (PNLS) in May 2003. This showed that 55 percent of boys had used condoms in their first sexual encounter compared to just 45 percent a year earlier.
According to the French Red Cross, the HIV prevalence rate in Gabon rose from 2.2 percent of the population in 1989, when oil production and government revenues were still rising comfortably, to 6.0 percent in 2003, when oil production was in free-fall as offshore reserves dried up. Government spending has been cut accordingly so roads have been left unrepaired and spending on education and health have fallen.
In Libreville, a port town of 700,000 people surrounded by slums which now holds more than half of Gabon's small population, the HIV prevalance rate of 7.8 percent is well above the national average.
The government finally reacted to the spread of AIDS by setting up a one billion CFA (US $20 million) solidarity fund last year to help people with living with AIDS and prevent the disease from spreading.
But both the PNLS and the solidarity fund have been widely criticised for failing to use the money at their disposal effectively.
"Although it should be encouraged, the government programme to fight AIDS has been marred in recent years by the corruption of certain administrators who have used the funds for their own ends and everybody knows this," said Brother Hubert Guerineau, a leading member of the local AIDS activist group Solidarity of Young Christians.
Another problem is that many people living with AIDS cannot afford treatment at local hospitals, some of which make quite plain that AIDS patients are not welcome.
They therefore seek treatment from withdoctors and practitioners of traditional African medicine, whose recommendations frequently clash with those of scientific medicine.
"The traditional healers do a great deal of damage because sometimes they urge those who are ill to have sex with a virgin to make the disease disappear," said Pierre Andre-Kombila, the director general of the Ministry of Health.
The fact that many parents are reluctant to discuss sexual issues with their children doesn't help either.
The PNLS survey conducted last year concluded that "The guidance given by parents has failed to keep pace with changes in social behaviour, particularly in polygamous families and single parent families."
"It is difficult to talk about sex education with our parents at home. It is a taboo subject," Sandra Bidouma, a university student told IRIN. "At the age of 22, my sexual education has been carried out in the streets, at university and in the homes of other families."
The PNLS survey said that sexual education tended to be carried out most effectively in households where one member of the family was already living with AIDS.
Condoms are widely available, but they are relatively expensive and often unreliable as a result of deterioration during storage.
The influential Roman Catholic Church, while active in the fight against AIDS, steadfastly preaches abstinence before marriage. "The Church favours dialogue above all else," said Father Jose Maria, a who works with street children. "We tell young people about the dangers they face if they have sex in an uncontrolled manner."
Brother Hubert of Solidarity of Young Christians put it even more strongly. "In my view contraceptives should not be distributed because they just encourage young people who have not yet had a sexual experience to try it," he said. "Furthermore, the contraceptives are often of poor quality," he added.
However, the reality is that most Gabonese teenagers have their first sexual encounter betwen the ages of 12 and 14 and teenage pregnancies are common.
Meanwhile the state is faced with the challenge of looking after an estimated 9,000 orphans of people who have died from AIDS.
Mbouty Ikapi, a senior official in the Ministry of Family Affairs, told IRIN that government policy was to encourage extended families to take these children under their wing.
The creation of orphanages was too costly an undertaking for the government and would only lead to children being brought up in an institutional rather than a family atmosphere, he added.
Ikapi said his ministry projected that the number of AIDS orphans in Gabon would increase to 14,000 by 2010 unless people changed their sexual behaviour.