Aids set to engulf South Africa

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The Independent Online
Johannesburg - Frightening new statistics released yesterday revealed that the sub-Saharan pandemic of HIV infection is threatening to engulf South Africa, writes Hugh Pope.

Some 850,000 people, 2.1 per cent of the 40 million population are believed to be HIV positive, the virus that causes Aids, said Dr Coenraad Slabber, director-general of the Ministry of Health. This doubles every 13 months, he told the Independent.

That figure is well below 20-30 per cent infection rates in urban areas in countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia or Uganda. But in high-risk groups like pregnant women, the South African figure has reached 8 per cent and is rising.

Such statistics have forced South Africa into action, partly thanks to a government - led by black politicans - far more sensitive to a problem that principally afflicts the country's 75 per cent black majority. About half of those reported infected are likely to die within eight to ten years. "The impact has begun to cut deep," said the deputy President, Thabo Mbeki, opening the 7th UN conference on Aids in Cape Town on Monday. "Those affected are from the young and able-bodied work-force as well as young intellectuals."

Nkosazana Zuma, the Health Minister, has mobilised South Africa's limited resources to deal with HIV infection, a subject that many of her constituents still treat with the same fear, ignorance, neglect and sensationalism that contributed to the spread of the disease.

On Monday, the Sowetan newspaper reported that 100 children were being raped every day in the sprawling township of 3 million people, because HIV positive men believed that breaking children's hymens could cure the disease. The next day, the newspaper said police were notified of only three cases a day, although it added perhaps only one-tenth of cases were reported.

"It's the first I've heard of it. But in Africa in general, older men are having sex with virgins to decrease their chance of infection. What happens is that they infect the girls," said Pierre Brouard, head of counselling services at Johannesburg's main non-government Aids centre.

Poster campaigns against Aids are still in their infancy here and condoms are unpopular.Community action programmes born of desperation in countries such as Uganda are still not happening. But specialists believe that government and even industrialists are beginning to get the message that inaction could lead to economic and social disaster. "There has been a turning point," said Dr Peter Piot, who is visiting South Africa as chief co-ordinator of the main UN agencies' campaign against Aids. "There is also a feeling that Africa is being abandoned," he said. "I am here to say there will be no pull-out.''

Two-thirds of Aids cases are reported in Africa. Uganda's railways, for instance, loses 3 per cent of its workforce annually. In central and east African towns, more than half the hospital beds are occupied by Aids patients. By the end of 1994, the World Health Organisation estimated the planet had seen 18 million people HIV-infected. The UN believes 4.5m cases of chronic Aids-related disease have occurred, killing 3 million people.

"Aids is part of the human condition and will remain so. There are no quick technological fixes. Neither vaccine nor cure is a realistic prospect this century," Dr Piot said.

A delaying method was proving effective through a drugs cocktail but the cost was far beyond the reach of most Western Aids victims, let alone those in Africa.