A social vaccine for AIDS in Ghana

By Ivan Danielewicz

In the history of diseases, AIDS is regarded as one of the worst.

While AIDS affects relatively few Canadians, take a moment to think about the 40 million worldwide that currently struggle with the disease. Twenty-five million people in Africa are currently infected. World AIDS Day, December 1, saw the return of Dr. Donald Ray and his two graduate students to the University of Calgary to talk about their experiences with AIDS in Ghana and Ghana’s successful social vaccine program.

While a medical cure has yet to be discovered, social vaccines–which include programs like research projects and media days–will help to turn the tide against AIDS infection by bring insight into the disease.

“At the U of C we’re not waiting for the biological vaccine to be developed,” said Ray, who is a professor of political science and the head of the Traditional Authority Applied Research Network. “We have just returned from Ghana on a program that was funded by the International Develop- ment of Research Canada.”

Key to their trips was determining how the Ghanian social programs are helping prevent the spread of AIDS, especially amongst the large population of orphans. Ray and his two graduate students–Sherri Brown and Kim Schoon–spent time working with Planned Parenthood Ghana and the Queen Mothers of the community to discuss their programs.

“They are successful because they are traditional leaders,” said Schoon. “The Paramount Queen Mother and the Deputy Queen Mother care for over 600 kids in their homes, on top of their regular duties.”

For their work in the communities, both of the graduate students were made honorary Queen Mothers in Ghana and given special titles. Schoon was given the title of Pi-Yo-Gu meaning special or ideal woman. Brown was given the title of Seyeta Mateko meaning Daughter of the Paramount Home.

“Being given the title was my most amazing experience,” said Schoon. “To give respect for what they have done and then to be looked in the same way is an honor.”

Despite this successful social vaccine, Ghana still finds close to five out of every hundred people diagnosed as HIV positive. While this number is high, consider the 38 out of every 100 that are HIV positive in Botswana.

“I was brought to a woman dying of AIDS who had five children,” recalled Brown. “I almost broke down in tears because they had all lost so much.”

Close to eight million people in 2003 became HIV positive and workers such as Dr. Ray hope to one day reduce that number to zero.

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