The vast majority of South Africans suffered under racial apartheid more than 50 years. Now they suffer from another injustice, but one some consider just as preventable – the AIDS epidemic.
That was the subject of a talk by the authors of a new book about AIDS in South Africa yesterday in Palmer Commons.
Gerald Oppenheimer and Ronald Bayer spoke and read excerpts from their book, “Shattered Dreams? An Oral History of the South African AIDS Epidemic.” The event was sponsored by the University’s Center for the History of Medicine.
The book is a collection of oral accounts from doctors and nurses working to fight AIDS in South Africa.
Uncooperative politicians, a lack of anti-retroviral medication and the legacy of apartheid complicates the jobs of medical professionals in an already perilous situation, according to Bayer.
Bayer recounted one doctor’s struggle to return to work after the death of a 5-year-old girl from HIV-associated lymphoma. The doctor had grown close to the young girl, who had been orphaned by AIDS.
“I couldn’t deal with the fact this child died of AIDS, she died alone and she died innocently,” Bayer read. “I went from there to thinking I don’t want to get close to another patient and watch them die.”
Because of the huge influx of AIDS patients and continuous impersonal deaths, doctors are often confronted by a feeling of indifference, Oppenheimer said.
He said doctors often give up on patients after diagnosing them with AIDS because of the lack of supplies and hospital space in South Africa.
“What I began to see was a sense of hopelessness developing, not only among the patients but amongst the medical staff,” Oppenheimer read from another doctor’s story.
“If eighty percent of my patients have AIDS and I can’t do anything about it, then what am I as a doctor?”
Prof. Howard Markel, the director of the University’s center for the History of Medicine, said after the lecture that an essential element of a complete medical education is learning how to treat patients like real people.
“We try to impart on our students that there is more than just vials to prescribe,” he said. “Or a body to operate on, or tests that you order, that there is a human being in your office who is a loved one, or a spouse, or a child.”
Markel said that this is particularly important when dealing with AIDS, where the statistics can be daunting.
“When you can see past the statistics and put yourself in their situation, it becomes a lot easier to treat your patients as human beings,” he said.
Oppenheimer said there is still an absence of political will to address the epidemic. This has contributed to the limited availability of HIV/AIDS medication, despite the prevalence of the disease.
According to current estimates by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, there are over Of the 47 million people who inhabit South Africa, 5 million people are living with AIDS. Many of the infected are children.
In some hospitals, 30 to 40 percent of the pediatric wards are made up of children with HIV or AIDS, according to Bayer.
Alexandra Sloan, a University alum who now works at the Center for History of Medicine, said she was impressed by the lecture and enjoyed the style of Bayer and Oppenheimer’s book, which mixed hard facts with personal accounts.
She also said she was interested in the response of medical professionals to situations in which medication doesn’t erase the problem.
“It’s really interesting to see what we do when biomedicine fails, because we rely so much on it,” Sloan said.