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Singer Bono Tours  US Heartland to Raise Support in Fight Against AIDS in Africa - 2002-12-06

This year, an estimated 2.5 million people in Africa will die from AIDS-related complications. It is a figure that got a lot of attention earlier this year at the World AIDS Conference. And this month, a well-known rock star is bringing the grim details of AIDS in Africa to the American Midwest.

The cheering from the 2,000 people who packed an auditorium at Wheaton College near Chicago was worthy of an international rock star. But Bono, the lead singer of the Irish group, U-2, was not here to sing, he was on a tour of the American Midwest, asking for support in the fight against HIV-AIDS in Africa.

"There is a moral compass here in the heartland of the United States that sets the course for the rest of the country," the singer said.

On December 1, World AIDS Day, Bono and his entourage, including American actress Ashley Judd, began a tour of universities, churches and even truck stops, from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Nashville, Tennessee. All along the way, they talked about the AIDS crisis in Africa.

"Sixty-five hundred people died today, and will die tomorrow, and will die the day after tomorrow, and so forth, and so on, not taking a break for Christmas, in Africa, because of HIV-AIDS," Ms. Judd said. "Nine thousand five hundred people today, tomorrow, the day after that, so on and so forth, are infected with the HIV-AIDS virus."

Judd and Bono is trying to raise awareness of Africa's problems through his organization, DATA. It stands for Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa. He is asking people throughout this tour to write lawmakers in Washington, and urge them to work for debt forgiveness in Africa. He says that would help many African governments increase spending on health care and education. Opening up markets for more African goods would also help that continent's economy.

But, he says, AIDS is the greatest crisis in Africa today, telling the crowd at this Christian college the world's response to the crisis will be judged by God and history.

"I believe the church, if it does not respond to this crisis, will be made irrelevant," he said. "Salt on the side of the plate. Useless. Love thy neighbor is not good advice, it is a command."

Among those who addressed the audience in this two-hour program was Agnes Nyamayarwo. She is a Ugandan nurse, whose husband died of AIDS. So did one of her 10 children. Another ran away from home nine years ago. Agnes is HIV positive, and volunteers in a clinic for people with AIDS. She says few people in Africa can afford drugs to manage the disease. "So, you find people who have come to the clinic, they have maybe sold whatever they have to buy the drugs for one member of the family," she said.

AIDS researcher Dr. Jim Kim talked about how the promise of treatment encourages people to find out if they have the AIDS virus. "You get into a logjam, and that logjam is that the best way of changing behavior is knowing your status, whether you are HIV-positive or negative, he said. "But, if no treatment is available, the motivation to get tested does not exist."

There were certainly those in the crowd more interested in seeing Bono than in hearing about the AIDS crisis in Africa, but Cliff Johnson of Chicago hopes most people in the room were touched by what they heard.

"There is an entire continent that is struggling with problems," he said. "On a daily basis, I open my newspaper, and turn on the TV, and I see lots of news, but very rarely does it connect with people who are most in need in the world. I think, as a country that is blessed with so much, we are also given much responsibility. The more awareness we can raise about the responsibility, the better."

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has estimated $7 to $10 billion is needed to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in Africa and the rest of the developing world.