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Mugabe Highlights HIV/AIDS Crisis in Zimbabwe


President Robert Mugabe has committed Zimbabwe to achieving universal access to anti-retrovirals to treat HIV/AIDS by 2010. As Peta Thornycroft reports for VOA from Harare, Mr. Mugabe has also said that Zimbabwe is the only southern African country where the HIV/AIDS infection rate is going down, which he says is an indication of his government's commitment to fighting the disease.

Though President Mugabe now regularly refers to HIV/AIDS - for many years he refused even to mention the disease and his government would not allow HIV/AIDS educational films to be made.

But in January 1987, a Zimbabwe news magazine, Parade, announced the arrival of HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe with a cover story headlined AIDS, It's Here. The story prompted a hostile reaction from the Mugabe government, which decided that AIDS was a "white man's plot." The editor of Parade at that time, Andrew Moyse, was regularly harassed by state officials, but the magazine was the only way people could find out anything about AIDS and it persisted in publishing stories, despite the government pressure.

But then some Cabinet ministers started dying from the disease and gradually the government began talking about it. But to this day few officials in government are prepared to admit they or their families are affected by the disease.

Zimbabwe's private sector and the international donor community drove the fight against HIV/AIDS, and they still do by providing financial resources and skilled personnel.

Western donors are supporting families who care for the 1.6 million children who have been orphaned by the disease. Doctor Sesto Kavishe, UNICEF's representative in Zimbabwe, said Tuesday the number of children missing one or both parents is growing alarmingly. The Swedes Tuesday announced an emergency injection of $5 million to support them. The United States has given $27 million to Zimbabwe for HIV/AIDS treatment this year. The European Union provides assistance to a local company to produce anti-retrovirals, and international donors supplement feeble state salaries for key medical personnel to keep them working in the field.

Health Minister David Parirenyatwa is viewed by many in the HIV/AIDS community as one of the few progressive members of the ruling ZANU-PF, and they say he has removed many obstacles in Zimbabwe's fight against the disease.

And with the death rate soaring from AIDS, Mr. Mugabe and his ZANU-PF government are being forced to admit the catastrophe that HIV/AIDS is for Zimbabwe.

Yet, even though the country faces no internal or external threat, it still spends far more on upgrading military hardware than on HIV/AIDS. Only 46,000 people are able to get anti-retroviral drugs, most of which are supplied by the donor community.

President Mugabe says more than 400,000 people are urgently in need of treatment, and donors say the real figure is probably even higher. Zimbabwe's death rate from HIV is roughly estimated at 3,000 a week, but there really are no accurate statistics, as AIDS is not recorded on death certificates.