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South Africans Praise Latest HIV/AIDS Testing Campaign

South African President Zuma waves as he arrives to declare his HIV-negative status during launch of the HIV Counselling and Testing Campaign held at Natalspruit Hospital in Katlehong, 25 April 2010

South African leaders are praising President Jacob Zuma's new campaign to test nearly one-third of the population for HIV/AIDS in a country with the highest number of HIV victims in the world.

Leaders of the country's opposition political parties, labor unions and health-care professions praised President Zuma for launching an ambitious program to test 15 million South Africans for the HIV/AIDS virus by June of next year.

In announcing the program, Mr. Zuma said many people are afraid to be tested because of the stigma associated with HIV. In South Africa the virus, which weakens the immune system, is transmitted primarily through unsafe sex.

"We have to work harder together to fight the perceptions and the stigma," he said. "We have to make all South Africans understand that people living with HIV have not committed any crime."

He said the country's 4,300 clinics and hospitals are ready to provide HIV testing and counseling to all. And he said the number of facilities supplying anti-retroviral drugs used to combat AIDS would be doubled from 500 to 1,000.

He appealed to retired health-care professionals to help in the campaign.

Under the plan, the government would also triple the number of condoms distributed each year to 1.5 billion.

In South Africa an estimated 5.7 million people, or 11 percent of the total population, are infected with HIV.

In a move to encourage more South Africans to be tested, the South African president publicly announced the results of his latest HIV test.

"My April results, like the three previous ones, registered a negative outcome for the HIV virus," Mr. Zuma said.

But he went on to underscore the decision to be tested for HIV remained a voluntary and confidential, individual choice.

HIV activists have praised Mr. Zuma for breaking publicly in his first year of office with the policies of his predecessor, former President Thabo Mbeki who was accused of failing to respond adequately to the HIV pandemic.

But the 68-year-old Mr. Zuma, who has three wives, has come under criticism for his personal lifestyle.

He was acquitted in a 2006 rape trial, during which he admitted having unsafe sex with an HIV-positive woman, and he came under political pressure recently when it emerged that he fathered a child out of wedlock last year.