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ETHIOPIA: HIV/AIDS risk awareness "very low", survey finds

Most of Ethiopia's 65 million people are at "high risk" from HIV/AIDS, the world’s most far-reaching-ever sexual survey has established. According to the study, most Ethiopians still fail to take precautions against contracting the disease which is devastating their country.

The survey found that almost all Ethiopians who had unprotected sex with a "non-marital" partner believed they were not at risk - and one in five married Ethiopians has had more than one partner. It showed that only 60 percent of people belonging to high-risk groups like prostitutes and truck drivers knew of all methods of prevention, but almost all knew about condoms.

These startling results were revealed on Tuesday last week at the UN conference centre in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, during at a meeting of organisations engaged in combating the virus. The findings are part of the preliminary results of the Behavioural Surveillance Survey (BSS) of more than 30,000 people in rural and urban areas in every region of Ethiopia.

HIV/AIDS has had a crippling effect on Ethiopia, where some 3.5 million people – representing the third-highest infected population in the world – are living with the virus. It has also orphaned a million children, and hit the economy by killing large numbers of the country's most productive age group – those between 15 and 49.

"Despite the surveyed population’s high level of HIV/AIDS knowledge, their own risk perception of potentially becoming infected with the virus is very low in almost all groups," Dr Genet Mitike from the Department of Community Health at Addis Ababa University said. "Therefore a significant proportion of the population is at high risk of HIV infection, and it is vital to learn about these risk behaviours in order to design and implement effective HIV/AIDS programmes."

But despite lack of knowledge about prevention, nearly all those surveyed knew about the virus. Dr Wuleta Lemma, from Family Health International, said action against HIV/AIDS must address the deadly gap between knowledge and behaviour.

The anti-HIV/AIDS campaign is being spearheaded by the National Aids Council Secretariat (NACS). However, the World Bank, which has contributed US $59.7 million to fighting HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia, has criticised NACS as lacking the capability to combat the virus. The Bank said it was "seriously concerned" by its failure to improve the capacity of those participating in the campaign.

A team of World Bank inspectors noted "serious shortcomings" requiring urgent rectification in order to enhance the effectiveness of anti-AIDS projects. Almost half the NACS proposals submitted for funding to fight HIV/AIDS are still "pending" while a further 26 percent have been rejected.

Negatu Mereke, the head of NACS, said the information provided by the survey would help track the course of the epidemic. He said it would enable NACS to develop a "systematic and comprehensive" monitoring system.

The survey was carried out during 2001 and 2002. It was headed by NACS with help from the US Agency for International Development, Family Health International and Addis Ababa University.

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