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Botswana Unveils Strategy Against HIV/AIDS - 2002-07-07

Botswana has unveiled a "strategy of war" against HIV/AIDS. At the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain, the nation's health officials talked about the devastation of the pandemic and what's being done about it.

Botswana is a country with a very small population and a very high infection rate of the HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, it's considered the highest in the world with estimates of 35-39 percent.

Of the country's 1.6 million people, 330,000 are infected. It is why Minister of Health Joy Phumaphi is calling for an aggressive, comprehensive global action plan against the pandemic. "The call is now beyond the moral imperative of yesterday," she said. "It is a strident call for survival."

On the surface, Botswana appears to be doing well as of result of its diamond and beef exports and its well-known natural wonders, including the Okavango Delta and the Kalahari Desert. The head of UNAIDS, Dr. Peter Piot, says as a result of that economic success, Botswana is not eligible for many World Bank development loans. But the current economic success is not expected to last.

Dr. Banu Kahn, head of the country's National AIDS Coordinating Agency, NACA, says the economy is expected to decline by 32 percent by the year 2021. She says the economic and social impact of HIV/AIDS can already be seen. "Our life expectancy, which has increased from 47 to 67 years since independence, is being reversed back to its original figure by the epidemic," she said. "Infant mortality is also expected to rise and crude birthrate expected to fall. So that we have the very old and the very young and not as many of the people who are productive and required to run the country."

Health Minister Phumaphi is asking rich nations to provide the technical, economic and human resources that Botswana needs to "wage its war" against the disease. "We are all engaged in a fight to the death," she said. "It is a good fight for the survival of the human race and the protection of life as we know it. Let us fight with all our might because it is HIV/AIDS that must die and not our people."

Part of Botswana's AIDS fighting strategy is the African Comprehensive HIV/AIDS Partnerships. It is a joint effort of Botswana, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Merck Company Foundation. The five-year, $100 million public and private campaign links both national and grassroots HIV /AIDS groups with international donors and organizations with medical and technical expertise. It also includes the donation by Merck of at least two antiretroviral drugs.