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African First Ladies Join Forces to Fight AIDS on the Continent - 2002-07-18

First ladies from nearly 20 African countries have announced the creation of a new alliance to fight AIDS on the African continent. The Organization of African First Ladies Against HIV/AIDS was launched in Geneva.

Representatives from 35 African countries, including 18 African first ladies, are attending a three-day U.N.-sponsored conference in Geneva to set up the structure and define the goals of the new organization.

The group has strong backing from a private anti-AIDS organization chaired by former South African President Nelson Mandela and former President Bill Clinton.

The First Lady of Zambia, Maureen Mwanawasa, told journalists in Geneva she was confident the new anti-AIDS organization would receive strong support from the newly formed African Union. "We are here with the blessings of the heads of states, who happen to be our husbands and who happen to be members of the African Union," she said. "So, canvassing on those lines will not be a problem. They know why we are here and they respect the cause of the conference."

Though AIDS is a worldwide problem, it has hit Africa the hardest. The U.N. Global Program against AIDS says 28 million people in Africa are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

According to U.N. figures, more than 60 percent of new HIV infections are among women and girls, and girls are five times more likely than boys of the same age to get infected. It is for this reason that members of the First Ladies' alliance say a primary focus of the group will be teaching women and girls how to protect themselves from the disease.

U.N. officials say 22 percent of Zambia's population is infected with HIV. But Zambia's first lady says prevention and education programs are bringing down the rate of infection in her country.

Ms. Mwanawasa says one of alliance's goals is to have all the first ladies of Africa begin national programs to fight AIDS and to expand these programs throughout the continent.