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S. Africa AIDS Activists Welcome Spending Increase

Anti-AIDS groups in South Africa are welcoming a government decision to boost spending on HIV and AIDS.

On Tuesday, South Africa's finance minister, Trevor Manuel, announced the government will quadruple its spending on AIDS-related programs over the next three years.

The World Health Organization says roughly 20 percent of South Africans are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Activists have long been calling on the government to boost its budget aimed at fighting the disease.

Love Life is the largest AIDS-prevention campaign in South Africa. It targets 12-to-17-year-olds, hoping to change their sexual behavior.

Love Life's funding from the government is supposed to increase by nearly $270,000 dollars under the new plan. The group's head, David Harrison, welcomed the government move, saying "any increase in funding for HIV/AIDS is to be supported and encouraged. The question, I guess, is whether the money is going to be targeted enough towards the interventions that we know are cost-effective and will make a difference."

He says the most effective anti-AIDS programs aim to stem the spread of the disease. He hopes the government will use its money to expand the use of anti-retroviral drugs such as nevirapine to prevent HIV-positive pregnant women from passing the virus on to their unborn children.

Dr. Harrison told VOA the only way South Africa will change the course of its epidemic is to boost funding for prevention. "That's not to say that issues of managing HIV and certainly support for people affected and infected with HIV is unimportant. But the priority for South Africa is undoubtedly prevention," said Dr. Harrison.

The increase in funding to fight HIV and AIDS comes amid a long-running controversy over South Africa's AIDS policy. President Thabo Mbeki has sparked criticism both at home and abroad for his skepticism about the link between the virus and the disease.

He has also downplayed the extent to which AIDS is affecting South Africans. He was recently accused of trying to suppress a report that suggested 40 percent of adult deaths in the country last year were caused by AIDS-related illnesses.

But Dr. Harrison says the increase in funding is probably due more to demands from within government, not necessarily to pressure from critics and activists. He says AIDS is eating up the budgets of many government departments.

"I think that within government there are a number of ministries where the impact of HIV/AIDS is very stark, very obvious," said Dr. Harrison. "And so I'm not at all surprised that the experience of, for example, the welfare department, has had an effect on funding allocations. So I think on the one hand, yes, we do see the president still showing an ambivalence. On the other hand, there's certainly a growing pressure from ministries to try and cope with the tremendous pressure of HIV/AIDS on their own budgets."

Dr. Harrison says the Love Life program will be using its new funds on three main projects. One program is aimed at making public health clinics more friendly to adolescents. Another, the Love Life Games, uses sports to convey messages of a healthy lifestyle. Finally, the organization is working with the Department of Social Development to develop a national youth volunteer program, which will allow otherwise unemployed young people to give back to their communities by fighting the spread of AIDS.