AIDS toll in African heartland isn't always what people think

EAST LANSING, Mich. New ways to study the impact of HIV/AIDS on rural African families is showing that conventional wisdom isn't necessarily wise, and pointing to better ways to help those struggling in the wake of death.

A new method to gauge who is most likely dying from AIDS, and what it means to rural families, is painting a new picture of HIV/AIDS in the heartland of African countries most affected by this disease.

Researchers at Michigan State University, with African counterparts, have devised new ways to understand which families' livelihoods are most threatened after losing a family member to AIDS, and how both families and communities can be helped.

The picture emerging is less about an annihilation of families, but is a more nuanced pattern of loss that cripples some families and leaves others with a better chance of enduring.

"We want to be more effective in helping and we want less negative consequences of the assistance," said Michael Weber, MSU professor of agricultural economics. "Policies and mitigation programs can have a negative spill over on the rest of the households in these communities. We want to avoid rearranging the chairs on the Titanic as it's going down. You want to target those who need the help in a way that helps them and doesn't inhibit but stimulates growth for the rest."

The research is being presented this week at a pre-conference meeting of the 15th International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand.

The group is presenting ways to get at the elusive understanding of who is dying from HIV/AIDS-related illness in the agricultural countryside of severely affected countries of sub-Saharan Africa, where those infected are rarely tested and formally diagnosed. Weber and his colleagues at USAID and in-country governmental agencies have spent years amending surveys of rural populations in Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda and Zambia to include questions about which, if


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