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New Capital of South Sudan Battles AIDS

In the new capital of Southern Sudan, residents face the enormous task of turning a war-battered town into a city. Among the challenges is stemming the spread of HIV/AIDS. While trade with east Africa has benefited the city economically, it has also brought higher HIV infection rates, as traders import not just goods, but also disease.

HIV/AIDS is gaining a foothold in the southern Sudanese capital city of Juba. Traders entering the city for the first time, and Sudanese returning from refugee camps in Kenya and Uganda, have brought the virus with them.

Now, southerners are doing all they can to educate a vulnerable population about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. Some of those efforts are paying off. Southerners feel free to talk about living with AIDS, and even young children are well aware of the devastating consequences of the disease.

There has been a lack of statistical information on HIV/AIDS in south Sudan. Surveys could not be conducted in the region during the 21-year war between Sudan's northern Islamist government and rebels in the south. But health workers here believe the number of people living with AIDS is very high.

Dr. Manase Zibedayo is the director of Health Education and HIV/AIDS control in Equatoria state. He helped to institute a voluntary counseling and testing center in Juba, where people may be tested for HIV/AIDS.

"The result is very alarming," he said. "The number tested - the men are 399 [tested] and the female are 380. Out of these, 93 men were [HIV] positive and 85 females positive."

Mr. Zibedayo says those statistics indicate that the rate of HIV/AIDS in south Sudan is very high. But he says he is comforted by the fact that many southerners are open to being tested.

AIDS rates are also very high in northern Sudan. Mr. Zibedayo says the south of Sudan has one benefit over Sudan's Muslim north, where the stigma attached to AIDS infection has led many people to keep their infection with the disease a secret.

"Stigmatizing is not so serious here. Because, to my surprise, we are open to people living with AIDS after counseling. Counseling is one of the best methods," explained Zibedayo. "We are informing people about HIV/AIDS. And they feel free. If a person is told "you are carrying the virus" he'll come out because there is already an association for people living with AIDS."

Mr. Zibedayo says it is unlikely that southern people with AIDS will lose their jobs or be kicked out of their families, as is common in the north of Sudan.

Lole Laile is the Chairman of Juba's Association of People living with HIV/AIDS. He says he tells newly diagnosed patients to remain upbeat. "This is a normal disease. You need to live positively with HIV/AIDS. It is not the end of the human being. We tell them it is an epidemic disease. If you happen to come across it, you need to accept," he said. "That's what I tell them. This is normal. One is born to live and one is born to die."

Enlightenment about AIDS is the only way to combat the disease, say southerners. And there is a strong movement to educate about the disease.

In southern newspapers, cartoons are drawn to illustrate ways of contracting the disease. Anti-AIDS students associations are prominent. Condoms are available at hospitals and clinics, and they are widely distributed to soldiers.

South Sudan's churches are also involved. Many southern Sudanese are highly religious, and the church is a powerful tool for spreading messages about AIDS.

Nelson King is the HIV/ AIDS Youth Officer for Sudan Council of Churches. Mr. King says the church has had to accept that AIDS is a danger to youth. He says it is still difficult for some church leaders to talk openly about sex.

"What AIDS is doing to the people is just like a sin. The priests are preaching about sin, so also the priests have to preach about AIDS, because the two of them kill. Sins kill the soul and AIDS kills the body," said Mr. King. "So this is the message I am telling the churches to look into HIV/AIDS as an important issue to be addressed."

Mr. King says priests discuss AIDS in church sermons, and children above the age of 10 are taught about safe sex. The church even advocates the use of condoms, but does stress they should be used responsibly.

Young people may come to Mr. King's office for condoms, but they will be given a lecture on living like a Christian.

It will take time for statistics to show how well the south's anti-AIDS campaign is paying off, but health workers here are confident that it will make a difference.