LUSAKA, Zambia – A southern African radio correspondent has been receiving a flood of text messages and cell phone calls — some from offended listeners and readers.
All because Kennedy Gondwe chose to get circumcised to protect himself from AIDS, and took the British Broadcasting Corp.'s radio and Web audience through the procedure with him Friday.
A study published in the Lancet medical journal in February concluded that the findings of three major trials — in Kenya, South Africa and Uganda — show that circumcision can significantly reduce men's chances of contracting the virus that causes AIDS. U.N. health agencies followed up with an endorsement, but stressed that the procedure offers only partial protection and that abstinence, condom use, having few partners and delaying the first sexual experience are all among the steps that need to be encouraged.
Frank talk about AIDS and prevention methods, is still rare in Gondwe's Zambia, where HIV prevalence is 16 percent. That's what made Gondwe's public testimony Friday, the eve of World AIDS Day, even more striking.
A prominent Zambian journalist, Mildred Mpundu, died in November after going public with her HIV-positive status earlier this year and urging her fellow journalists to get tested.
Gondwe, who says he undergoes an AIDS test several times a year, said in an interview Friday he finds it "sad" that more people don't talk about circumcision as a prevention method.
"We as journalists also have a role to play in the fight against the disease," he said.
Gondwe, on the radio piece and in an online diary Friday, recounts his Nov. 22 procedure. Listeners can hear him gasp as a doctor injects him with a local anesthetic, but he assures them the procedure is otherwise painless. He was up, walking to his car and driving himself home soon afterward.
Dr. Jan van den Ende, a microbiologist at Toga Laboratory, which provides AIDS testing and counseling in neighboring South Africa, the country hardest hit by AIDS, said it was not entirely clear why circumcision provides the protection it does. He described it as a relatively simple and painless procedure, something Gondwe's story demonstrated.
While one admiring Web reader from Zambia told Gondwe he would soon follow his example, the reporter said others told him they were offended. Gondwe's Tumbuka people of Zambia's Northern Province do not embrace circumcision, he said.
David Alnwick, a senior AIDS adviser to UNICEF based in Nairobi, said UNICEF supports educating people that "circumcised men are relatively well protected against HIV." But he said there was a danger of creating demand that the world's poorest continent is not now prepared to meet.
Alnwick said Zambia has a long waiting list of men who want to be circumcised and only a few centers providing the service. But he says he expects governments to come aboard across the continent and international donors to provide funding.