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Nigeria Launches New Program to Fight AIDS Epidemic - 2003-08-06

Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo has unveiled a new program to fight AIDS in Africa's most populous nation. The president's initiative follows criticism by health workers that previous campaigns have not worked.

According to the United Nations, HIV prevalence has steadily increased from 1.8 percent of the population in 1991 to nearly six percent a decade later. In some parts of the country, the infection rate is as high as 16 percent.

The reason, said Henry Dummett, Senior Analyst at World Markets Research Center in London, is the government's slow effort to raise awareness of the disease. "The new program outlined this week by the president is well intentioned in that the stigmatization of the disease is one of the major hindrances to curbing the spread of the problem but this really should have been done 10 years ago. In terms of concerted government action - which is what is required - there has been precious little," Mr. Dummett said.

In addition, previous campaigns by the government served more to stigmatize the victims of the virus than educate Nigerians about AIDS. As a result a recent campaign to treat 10,000 AIDS sufferers with free anti-retroviral drugs flopped when only 2,000 people showed up.

Infection rates are particularly high among 16 to 24 year olds, which in a country with a youthful population, is particularly worrisome.

Mr. Dummett warned, "Unless the whole issue of taboo and stigmatization is broken, the levels of prevalence that one sees in southern Africa, around 20 to 30 percent on average, this could well come to pass in Nigeria - unless access to drugs is really improved greatly."

He said an estimated 850,000 Nigerians have already died from the virus, and millions are at risk.