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Sudan Begins to Confront AIDS

Sudan's traditional society paired with a strict Islamic government means that HIV and AIDS are not often discussed in the public arena. Now, in an effort to stem the spread of the disease, the government is partnering with the United Nations to teach journalists how to accurately and honestly discuss the disease in the media. Noel King in Khartoum has more.

Recent health surveys have shocked Sudan. United Nations data indicate more than 2.3 percent of the country's adult population is infected with HIV/AIDS.

The UNAIDS office says the country has the highest infection rate in North Africa or the Middle East. But confronting the disease has been a problem.

Aside from the occasional informational cartoon, AIDS and HIV, the virus that causes it, are rarely mentioned in Sudanese newspapers.

Many in Sudan's traditional society are uncomfortable talking about one of the primary ways the disease spreads - through sexual contact.

Sudan's Islamic code of law forbids sex outside marriage, and those who are infected with HIV say they are stigmatized and may be forced to leave their families or give up their jobs.

But as the infection numbers continue to rise, Sudan has been forced to confront the issue.

This week, Sudan's Ministries of Health and Information partnered with the United Nations Development Program to teach Sudanese journalists how to discuss the disease in the media.

Minister of Health Tabitha Boutros says the key to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS is informing Sudanese about transmission methods.

"If you get the message across to the people then it's very easy to prevent HIV/AIDS," said Boutos. "The message today is that working in collaboration is so important in getting the message across to the people on how they can deal with the problem of HIV/AIDS."

Sudanese journalists attending the event say they understand the importance of educating people on the transmission routes.

But they add there is another aspect of media involvement.

Gilan Obeid Sherrif works for Sudan Now Magazine, which is affiliated with the state-run news agency. She says the media should stress compassion for those living with the disease.

"Here in Sudan we have a problem," she said. "We are here to support the workers of this field of HIV/AIDS and how we can raise the awareness of people who are infected with this disease?"

There are still complex issues to be addressed. Sudanese officials worry that offering information on the transmission of the disease may promote extra-marital sex.

And debates rage in Sudan about whether it is appropriate to advocate the use of condoms.

Still, this week's event makes clear Sudan is beginning to face the threat of HIV/AIDS, as well as the question of respect for those who are infected.