The world’s two most populous nations promised on Wednesday to eradicate ignorance about AIDS, a disease dismissed at first as a Western evil confined to drug users, homosexuals and prostitutes.
In the world’s poorest continent, Africa, where the epidemic has ripped huge holes in the social and economic fabric, thousands staged rallies to mark World AIDS Day. The World Health Organization estimates there are 25.4 million HIV sufferers in sub-Saharan Africa, 60 percent of the global total in a region with 10 percent of the world’s population. Activists and governments around the world marked the day with events drawing attention to the disease and promoting its eradication. “HIV/AIDS is the greatest health crisis of our time. Its defeat requires the cooperation of the entire global community,” President Bush said in Washington. China, criticized for its slow initial response to HIV/AIDS, put on a display of commitment to fighting a disease the United Nations fears could infect 10 million Chinese by 2010. In India, where over five million people have already been infected, the government pledged greater efforts to promote awareness, especially in rural areas and among the young. “The world can no longer afford to ignore the enormity of the HIV epidemic,” Antonio Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said in Beijing. “Aids affects us all,” said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan who called it “the worst epidemic humanity has ever faced.” At an event sponsored by six New York investment firms, Annan urged corporations to try to prevent the further spread of AIDS by treating infected workers and speaking up about it. In South Africa, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town used AIDS Day to criticize the government, which activists have long accused of moving too slowly against a disease that affects one in nine of the population.”With regard to our government’s endless stalling, I am at a loss,” Ndungane said in a speech at an AIDS rally. TEARING APART FAMILIES Veteran politician Mangosuthu Buthelezi urged congregants at a Cape Town cathedral to break down the stigma of AIDS — which has claimed two of his children. “AIDS is decimating our people, tearing apart our families, uprooting our communities,” he said. In the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, K.Y. Amoako, chairman of the Commission of HIV/AIDS and Governance in Africa, warned that women were accounting for an increasing proportion of Africans suffering from the disease. “The resulting social decay and community breakdown may well threaten the socio-economic fabric of our continent,” said Amoako. In badly hit countries like Botswana, Swaziland and Zambia, AIDS deaths are robbing economies of workers, families of breadwinners and cutting average life expectancy by decades. Botswana President Festus Mogae told the BBC that 37 percent of Botswanans were infected with HIV. “We don’t seem to be getting on top of it,” he said bleakly. “We have to say things like ‘abstain or die.”‘ In Nigeria, President Olusegun Obasanjo announced new plans to combat the scourge. Under the U.S.-sponsored Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, Nigeria hopes over the next five years, to prevent 1.1 million new infections and provide care for 1.7 million infected people. “Our country is at a crucial stage of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the strength of our proactive response could set the stage for containing or reversing the situation,” Obasanjo said On the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, the head of the local Catholic Church outraged activists by saying condoms had helped spread the deadly virus by encouraging promiscuity. “Condoms do not work. They do not stop the virus getting through,” Cardinal Gaetan Razafindatrandraare said in a speech the government invited him to make. Local activists were disgusted. “The cardinal … has no right to misinform people in this way,” said Lalaina Raholiarimanga, Madagascar program coordinator for the UK-based charity Aids Alliance. In Uganda an energetic government education campaign has seen infection rates drop from 30 percent in the early 1990s to 6 percent. The U.S. embassy in Kampala said Uganda would be one of four countries to benefit from a $12 million grant to carry out HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis research and training. In Thailand, where a mass public awareness campaign in the 1990s has been credited with sharply reducing the number of new HIV infections, youngsters paraded through shopping centers dressed as condoms to distribute condoms to other teenagers. But activists and experts said attitudes toward women and gays were hampering efforts to fight the disease. “Of the 14,000 people newly infected with HIV every single day, nearly half of them are women,” Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the International Center for Research on Women, said in Washington. “Millions of women became infected while monogamous and faithful, so focusing solely on personal behavior and risk absolutely does not go far enough.” (Source: Reuters, Dec 2004)