Fall 2007.
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New & Now: Fall 2007

Infectious Affection

Weathering the Storm

Petite Performer

Unlikely Presence

Into the Blue

Frog Friendly

The Ion Channel

Plaques and Tangles

Closer Look


NO DIRECTION HOME: A child orphaned by AIDS in Hlabisa, South Africa. The United Nations estimates more than 1 million South African youths have lost both parents to the disease. Photo by Paul Weinberg.

Weathering the Storm

South Africa's Extended Families Show Resilience In HIV/AIDS Crisis

As noted in our feature in this issue, health care providers in the Republic of South Africa have mostly failed to stem a growing tide of HIV/AIDS infections. People of childbearing age, particularly young women, appear to be bearing the brunt of this ongoing disaster.

A recent analysis by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, for example, found that AIDS-related death rates are rising, with mortality among females aged 20 to 39 years more than tripling between 1997 and 2004. During the same period, deaths due to AIDS-related conditions, such as tuberculosis, in the 25 to 29 age group have increased six-fold among females and tripled among males. In all, some 5.5 million South Africans over age 15 are infected with HIV, or close to 19 percent of the nation's adult population. UNAIDS reports the number of children orphaned by AIDS-related deaths has surpassed one million.

These bleak statistics have led to fears that the HIV/AIDS catastrophe could mean the breakdown of South Africa's extended family structure, a development with grave implications for the whole of that nation's social fabric. Thankfully, a study by an MU social scientist suggests most South African families, at least for now, are managing to cope with the crisis.

"We were surprised to see that all the alarmist predictions in the popular media that AIDS will bring an imminent downfall to the African society just did not seem to be true," says Enid Schatz, an assistant professor of occupational therapy and women's and gender studies. Schatz also serves as director of social science research in the School of Health Professions.

The study, published in the August issue of the journal World Development, confirmed that HIV/AIDS was taking a terrible emotional and economic toll on families. Schatz and her South Africa-based co-investigator Catherine Ogunmefun determined, however, that rural South African families, thanks mostly to the heroic efforts of older women in extended families, appear strong enough to weather the storm.

One elderly couple cited in the study supports 12 people, including seven grandchildren, four of whom are AIDS orphans.

"In the Western perspective we often see households as being unconnected, but that is not the case in South Africa," Schatz says. "We saw families who were very resilient and really taking care of each other. In some cases, grandmothers were caring for their own grandchildren as well as orphans and caring for those sick and dying of AIDS."

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