Six ministers in Zimbabwe cabinet 'treated for Aids'

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The Independent Online

Six of President Robert Mugabe's 22 cabinet ministers have Aids, the director of a Zimbabwean non-governmental Aids organisation has claimed.

Frank Guni, the head of Zimbabwe National Network for People Living with HIV/Aids (ZNNP), is reported to have said the ministers were among 500 patients on anti-retroviral drugs to treat HIV, which his group provides free. He would not divulge the names of the ministers for ethical and professional reasons.

Mr Mugabe has never publicly acknowledged that any ministers have the disease, although Zimbabwe has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world.

Dr Guni told the independent newspaper, The Financial Gazette: "If one of the ministers was to come out and say they had Aids, it would make a great difference to the nation because people would start to realise that the disease is not only for the poor, but can also affect the rich and powerful."

Aids lobbyists agree it would help Zimbabwe's war against the virus if the ministers were to go public about their status. Solomon Mutetwa, a doctor and health analyst, said: "It will help a lot of ordinary people because they will know that you can continue with life even at that high level with the disease." He added that this would encourage people to go for HIV testing.

Norman Nyazema, a leading Zimbabwean researcher on HIV and Aids, said that the cabinet ministers could help to remove the stigma attached to the disease if they were to go pub-lic. He said they could use any such announcement as an opportunity to tell Zimbabweans how the epidemic was devastating government departments and the army.

Mr Mugabe is considering declaring the Aids epidemic a national disaster "within weeks", The Financial Gazette has reported. Aids, which was first detected in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s, is killing more than 2,000 Zimbabweans a week. The World Health Organisation believes one in every four Zimbabweans may be infected with HIV.

Medical experts have been urging Zimbabwe to declare the epidemic a national disaster. If that happened, an international appeal could be launched for funds to increase awareness, improve care and help to pay for essential drugs including anti-retrovirals at a cheaper price.

* In its latest crackdown onopposition to Mr Mugabe and the ruling Zanu-PF party, the Zimbabwean government announced plans to bring in the death penalty for subversion, The Herald, a state-run newspaper, reported yesterday. Describing opposition work as "terrorist activities", the government said the new Bill would allow for the hanging of those found guilty of trying to overthrow the government.

The legislation would also prohibit courts from granting bail to suspects accused of "politically motivated" crimes ranging from murder to car theft, the report said.

Copies of the proposed legislation against sedition have not yet been made public, but opposition officials said it appeared to be part of a government plan to intimidate critics.

A planned mass demonstration yesterday by civil rights organisations was reduced to about 40 people after police sealed off downtown Harare. The groups had organised the demonstration to protest against proposed changes to the election law, which could limit voting rights.