Refugee Rapes Fuel AIDS in Africa?s War Zones

Rape in Africa?s refugee camps is fuelling the spread of AIDS and threatens to send infection rates soaring in regions already hard hit by war, an official of the United Nations AIDS body said.
Av: Alistair Thomsom. Reuters Damien Rwegera, UNAIDS adviser for conflict zones in West and Central Africa, told Reuters better coordination between aid organisations was essential to stop infection rates mushrooming in areas hit by conflict. "There is widespread rape--people are no longer bound by social conventions," Rwegera said on Tuesday at the regional office of UNAIDS in Abidjan. "The soldiers rape, the men rape--especially as up to 95% of people in a refugee camp can be women and children because the men are dispersed." Measuring infection levels of HIV , the virus which causes AIDS, is almost impossible in such conditions, meaning little information is available on infection rates in the refugee camps of southern Guinea, Sierra Leone and eastern Congo. In some places rape by soldiers had become systematic. "We saw it during the (1994) Rwandan genocide, and now we are seeing it in Congo," Rwegera said. But despite the clear risk of AIDS ballooning in such situations, there has been little coordination to control the epidemic in conflict areas, Rwegera said. "At the moment, everyone is doing their own thing. We need regional mechanisms so that everyone knows who is doing what and who is going to pay for it... We can??t go on like this." In refugee camps where food and safe water are scarce, basic healthcare is often unavailable and there are many more immediate threats to life, it is hard to educate people about a disease that does not manifest itself for years. Rwegera??s office is working with other humanitarian agencies to create an AIDS task force to operate in war zones in Africa--the continent worst-hit by the pandemic and with the worst refugee problem. It is also creating a blueprint for aid workers in conflict zones to rapidly assess AIDS risks and act quickly to combat its spread through distribution of condoms and education. At the same time aid workers would treat HIV patients for related infections and try to counter the onset of AIDS. "We are not ruling out distributing anti-retrovirals in refugee camps," Rwegera said. "MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres - Doctors Without Borders ) has distributed anti-retrovirals to women who have been raped within 72 hours of the rape."