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Zimbabwe AIDS Conference Steps Up Battle Against Disease - 2004-06-18


Zimbabwe's first national conference on AIDS ended Friday with a series of recommendations on dealing with the disease.

After four days of discussions, the conference came up with a number of recommendations to intensify the battle against HIV and AIDS. The meeting brought together more than 700 delegates from governments, the private sector and civic groups.

Among the key recommendations were an intensification of prevention, coordination between those involved in the fight against HIV and AIDS and improved access to antiretroviral drugs, or ARVs.

The conference also devoted considerable attention to the issue of the stigma and discrimination against HIV and AIDS victims.

Although official figures show that one out of four Zimbabweans between the ages of 15 and 49 is HIV positive, they will rarely disclose their positive status. Most of the more than 3,000 deaths a week caused by AIDS in Zimbabwe are attributed simply to short or long illnesses. This is due to the fact that most of the infections in Zimbabwe are the result of sex, a taboo subject in most African societies.

One of the speakers at the conference was Kenneth Kaunda, the first president of Zambia, who encouraged people to go for voluntary counseling and to talk openly about their status. Mr. Kaunda spoke from first-hand experience.

"My wife and I lost a child to AIDS in 1986, 23rd December," he said. "He was 30, and he left behind six children. At that time it was taboo to mention that anybody had died of AIDS, so two weeks after the boy was buried I called a press conference and announced our child died of AIDS."

In Zimbabwe it is illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of their being HIV positive.

One individual who has gone public is model and businesswoman Tendai Westerhof. She has disclosed her HIV positive status and has set up the Public Personalities Against AIDS Trust, an organization that promotes openness about HIV and AIDS.

Ms. Westerhof says attitudes toward her are slowly changing but that she has paid the price for her disclosure.

"The majority, most sections of the society thought I was lying," said Mr. Westerhof. "It's not possible, it's not normal for a person to disclose that they are HIV positive. My business collapsed overnight, no single person would come into my modeling agency including some of my models, they ran away. But I had to understand that it's a process, I had to give a chance to the society to understand that if a person comes out to say they are HIV positive they need society's help and they are also trying to help the society."

Zimbabwe's health minister, Dr. David Parirenyatwa, told the conference that its recommendations would be taken seriously by the government and would be used in the formulation of new strategies to deal with the scourge.

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