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SOUTH AFRICA / AIDS / RAPE - 2002-02-12

South African health officials say a myth about HIV / AIDS has led to an increase in the rape of children, including infants. They say many of the attacks on children are triggered by the false belief that having sex with a young virgin can rid a person of the disease. VOA’s Joe De Capua says an organization representing thousands of doctors is calling on the South African government to take action to stop it.

With an estimated 4.7-million people believed infected with HIV – the virus that causes AIDS – South Africa has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world. As the infection rate has risen, so has the number of rapes of children. The Colleges of Medicine of South Africa says there is a dramatic increase in reported cases.

The organization – which represents about nine thousand doctors – describes the physical damage done to these children as abhorrent. It says some infants are actually ripped open with an implement to allow sexual penetration. They may require multiple reconstructive surgeries and yet never fully recover. What’s more, doctors say the psychological damage is immeasurable.

Professor Heinz Rode (rooder) is the chief of pediatric surgery at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town and a member of the Colleges of Medicine. He said, "We have done surveys here in our venereal infective disease clinics – and about 30 percent of men and women who attend these clinics are of the opinion that one can be cured of AIDS if you have sex with a virgin."

He says fueling the myth is the reality no medical cure is available and that government policy restricts South Africans’ access to AIDS drugs. President Thabo Mbeki has stirred much debate and controversy in recent years by questioning the link between HIV and AIDS – as well as the effectiveness and safety of AIDS drugs.

Dr. Rode says a combination of factors – including desperation – has led to the increase in the rape of children. "Poverty and unemployment and so on must play a role – and malnutrition must play a role in the desperate position that people find themselves in," he said. "There’s also a significant element in criminality and the aggressive nature of men towards women that plays a role here. But I’m sure that the fact that many of these people are not allowed to get anti-HIV drugs must play a significant role in this phenomenon."

Professor Rode says AIDS drugs must be made available to all those who need it. The South African doctor said, "I work in an underprivileged near Cape Town. It’s a very large community of about a million people. There’s not a single family there who has not had somebody who’s been affected or that has had a death in the family as a result of HIV / AIDS."

The pediatric surgeon says he believes a groundswell of public opinion will force the South African government to do more to fight HIV / AIDS.

The Colleges of Medicine in South Africa is calling on the government to debunk the myth that having sex with a virgin will cure a person of AIDS. It says better methods are needed to investigate pediatric rape cases to ensure forensic evidence will withstand legal scrutiny. The organization is also calling for tougher sentences for convicted rapists.