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Rage, remorse, but some hope in Africa on AIDS Day
Andrew Quinn, Reuters
December 01, 2005

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Rage and remorse marked World AIDS Day in Africa on Thursday as the continent worst hit by the global crisis remembered millions of deaths in a pandemic that even new drug treatments are doing little to slow.

Across Africa AIDS patients criticised political leaders for failing to come to grips with the disease and the international community for doing too little to help.

"Money that has been earmarked for HIV/AIDS has gone into everything else but AIDS," fumed Meris Kafusi, a 64-year-old AIDS patient in Tanzania who only recently began receiving life-prolonging antiretroviral (ARV) drugs.

"Organisations that say they are dealing with AIDS are always in seminars or workshops. They should be buying food for widows and orphans ... but instead of that, you find them earning daily allowances of $50 for sitting in a room discussing us. Is this fair?"

Some two decades into the epidemic, sub-Saharan Africa remains ground zero for worldwide HIV/AIDS deaths as well as for new infections -- a calculus of misery that has already cut life expectancy in many countries, left millions of children orphaned and reduced agricultural output in hungry countries.

The latest U.N. estimates say 26 million of the 40 million people infected with HIV worldwide live in Africa, and that Africa saw about 3.2 million of the almost 5 million new infections recorded in 2005.

Jack Yong Kim, the director of the HIV/AIDS department at the World Health Organisation (WHO) who was visiting the tiny African kingdom of Lesotho for AIDS Day, said Africa's pain was due in large part to lack of proper planning.

"Current prevention, treatment and care efforts are too episodic, ad hoc, and lack the intensity, pace and rhythm needed to make an impact," he said in a statement.

Lesotho on Thursday sought to boost its AIDS campaign by launching a door-to-door drive to enlist the kingdom's entire population for voluntary HIV tests.

But in Swaziland -- which shares with Lesotho the grim distinction of having the world's highest adult HIV prevalence rate at some 40 percent -- King Mswati scrapped AIDS Day entirely in order to concentrate on other royal duties.

Fewer babies buried
The introduction of ARVs, the only treatment proven to slow the progress of AIDS, is beginning to have an impact in Africa although officials say the drugs are only reaching 10 percent of the African patients who need them.

Diamond-rich Botswana, which pioneered public ARV treatment, said on Thursday it had enrolled almost 55,000 people on the drugs -- making it one of the few African countries to meet its national target.

In South Africa, which with some 5 million HIV infections has the highest single caseload in the world, ARVs were credited with cutting the number of deaths of HIV-positive babies at one Johannesburg orphanage to just eight in 2005 from 51 in 2002.

"Their fight to live, the pain they have had to endure and yet the smiles they still had for their caregivers have ensured that each one holds a special place in our hearts," Cotlands orphanage director Jackie Schoeman said at a memorial service on Thursday.

But South Africa's roll-out of ARVs, which activists say is hobbled by government wariness over the drugs, has not stopped new infections and AIDS mortality continues to rise.

A projection by the research group Markinor said more South Africans were displaying high-risk sexual behaviour and forecast cumulative AIDS deaths could hit 9 million by 2021.

Some countries, notably Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe, appear to be bringing overall infection rates down -- thanks in large part to condom campaigns.

In West Africa, which has far lower HIV infection rates than countries to the south, efforts are under way to widen availability of ARVs but even key Western donors conceded that not enough was being done.

"How can you accept that 1.8 trillion dollars a day are traded on financial exchanges but we cannot find 50 billion euros a year for (AIDS) treatment? It is shameful morally, ethically and stupid politically," said French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy on a visit to Dakar on Wednesday.

For some African AIDS patients, the yearly round of speeches, rallies and commemorations to mark World AIDS Day has already become a pointless distraction.

"There is no need to attend AIDS rallies if I come back and my children sleep hungry," said Esther Kanini, a 41-year-old HIV-positive mother of five who lives in a tin shack in the vast Ongata Rongai slum west of Nairobi

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