An AIDS success story


by Mercedes Sayagues.

Senegal is a poor country, yet its HIV rate is one of the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa. As a result of early, bold and open action, Senegal has kept a low HIV rate of 1.4%. With little foreign aid for AIDS work, why have its HIV rates remained low while they soar elsewhere?

When the first six AIDS cases appeared in 1986, scientists and doctors convinced President Abdou Diouf to use this opportunity, possibly the only one, to contain AIDS. So Senegal took all possible action towards prevention. The Senegalese health authorities moved quickly to ensure a safe national blood supply, reliable data on infection rates, and to set up programmes for the control and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.

Reasons for low HIV rates 

  • All registered sex workers were reached at clinics with information and free condoms. A 2001 national survey found nearly all the sex workers used condoms with clients.
  • Strong alliances were formed with religious leaders who worked with the government to stop AIDS. Islamic religious leaders agreed they would preach fidelity and abstinence but would not oppose condom campaigns. These, in turn, would be modest and stress responsible sexuality.
  • Male circumcision (almost universal) appears to reduce infection. The removal of the foreskin before puberty makes the exposed skin more resistant to damage or infection during sex.
  • Alcohol consumption in Senegal is low, and sexual habits are conservative.

Senegal knows it cannot rest on its successes. The country is now working to provide free anti-retroviral treatment for half of those who need it. And there is the continual challenge of keeping new generations HIV-free.  

Mercedes Sayagues is a journalist based in South Africa. This is part of a longer article written for