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UNICEF: Stigma Hampers HIV/AIDS Prevention, Treatment in South Africa

The U.N. Children's Fund says the stigmatization of HIV/AIDS in South Africa hampers prevention and treatment of the disease. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva that UNICEF says more aggressive leadership is needed to end the stigma.

The U.N. Children's Fund says South Africa has made amazing strides since the end of apartheid in boosting the economy, in moving toward universal education and in expanding its social welfare network to millions of destitute people.

But UNICEF says the country has fallen down in the fight against HIV and AIDS. It says HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among young children in South Africa.

UNICEF says more than 400,000 people die of HIV-related causes each year in South Africa. It says this disease is largely to blame for the drop in life expectancy from 69 years in 1990 to less than 47 years today.

UNICEF representative in South Africa, Macharia Kamau, says death and infection continue to outpace prevention and treatment.

"The reason why prevention is falling way behind treatment is because HIV is still very much a stigmatized disease in South Africa," said Kamau. "The South African society, government, communities across the board have yet to break the back of the stigma related to the disease."

Kamau says there has to be an aggressive effort by the government and political leadership to send out a consistent message that HIV is a preventable disease.

He says people in power have to end the ignorance and stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.

"If you look at the experience of other countries - in Botswana, in Zambia, in Kenya, in Uganda, in Rwanda - consistently where the political leadership from the very top through to the ministerial leadership has taken ownership of this issue and has become the champion of this issue in communities, families have begun to recognize that this is something that can be treated like any other disease. It is as sure a killer as malaria, as diarrhea, as pneumonia. It is just a disease that needs to be prevented and when somebody has the disease, that needs to be treated," said Kamau.

South Africa has ratified the Millennium Development Goals aimed at reducing poverty, disease and suffering by 2015. The UNICEF official says the country is making progress in fighting poverty, enhancing education and creating gender equity. But he says South Africa is far behind in bringing down the rates of infant and maternal mortality.