Africa: AIDS Straight Talk

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Recently anti-apartheid icon and former South African president Nelson Mandela won admiration for lending weight to the fight against HIV and Aids by disclosing that his only surviving son Makgatho Mandela (54) had died from the pandemic. Aids activists, international agencies and other bodies involved in the fight against Aids poured glowing praise to Mandela for his openness about the pandemic in which his peers would prefer to remain silent.

The openness of African leaders in the fight against stigma and discrimination associated with HIV and Aids is evoking both ardent and enthusiastic support on the continent and internationally--a triumphant message amid grim statistics showing the raging pandemic outpacing all efforts to control it.

Recently anti-apartheid icon and former South African president Nelson Mandela won admiration for lending weight to the fight against HIV and Aids by disclosing that his only surviving son Makgatho Mandela (54) had died from the pandemic. Aids activists, international agencies and other bodies involved in the fight against Aids poured glowing praise to Mandela for his openness about the pandemic in which his peers would prefer to remain silent.

Mandela popularly known by his clan name ‘Madiba’ joins the ranks of Zambia’s founding president Dr. Kenneth Kaunda and Zimbabwe’s late veteran nationalist and Vice President Dr. Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo who all broke the norm and disclosed their sons had died of Aids. “I announce that my son has died of Aids,� Mandela told journalists last month, calling for the redoubling of efforts in the fight against the pandemic. “Let us give publicity to HIV and Aids and not hide it, because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness like TB, like cancer, is always to come out and to say somebody has died because of HIV and Aids. And people will stop regarding it as something extraordinary,� he said.

In 1996, one of Zimbabwe’s foremost and revered son of the struggle, Dr. Nkomo revealed that his son Earnest Thuthani who aged 41, had died of Aids. He said it was time relatives revealed the truth when it comes to the cause of death of their beloved ones. “He is not alone. Thousands of young people are dying of this thing (Aids) but people hide the truth,� Dr. Nkomo then said, while addressing mourners at his Kezi home in the southern part of the country.
Dr. Nkomo then fired a controversial broadside, alleging that Aids was brought into Zimbabwe by white people who intended to wipe out the Black population and take its land and wealth. “Unfortunately it back fired because they too are dying of it but still they have the knowledge of its origins and how it can be cured but they just do not want to share that knowledge,� he charged.

In 1986 Zambia's founding president Kenneth Kaunda lost his son Masuyo to the pandemic. “He was 30 when he died on 23 December 1986. He left behind six children. At the same time it was taboo to talk about Aids. This disease took my beloved son, a very intelligent boy,� Kaunda recalled while addressing more than 700 delegates to Zimbabwe’s first National HIV and Aids Conference last June.

Dr. Kaunda was the first African leader of a handful to lift the lid on the HIV and Aids stigma. “I called for a press conference and announced the boy had died of Aids,� he said. “Let us come together, let us fight together before this thing (Aids) destroys us. We are just fooling ourselves-this thing doesn’t know politics. It does not know religion,� the revered statesman said to a standing ovation. Dr. Kaunda, one of the few remaining giants of the days of emerging African independence, stepped down from power in 1991 and now devotes his time to the Kenneth Kaunda Foundation on HIV and Aids.

“Mr. Mandela is one of the many southern African leaders--who have openly acknowledged the impact of HIV and Aids on their own families,� the UN Aids agency said in a tribute to Mandela and other leaders in southern Africa. “The openness of these southern African leaders highlights that HIV/Aids knows no boundaries and that increasingly all people in this region of the world are being affected by the pandemic.�

Former SA home affairs minister and Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi also broke the norm last year when his son died of Aids last year. Mandela’s wife Graca had also openly accepted the impact of the pandemic on her family.

“By all accounts, we are dealing with the greatest health crisis,� Mandela said in 2003. “By all measure, we have failed in our quest to contain and treat this scourge. “And the disparity between its impact in the developed world and the developing world is a shocking reality that we cannot hide from.�

Health experts estimate that 1.8 million Zimbabweans are living with HIV and Aids and out of this figure, a staggering 600,000 need to be put on ARVs. South Africa with five million HIV and Aids infections, has the highest Aids caseload in the world and health experts in that country say the disease kills more than 600 people daily. The World Health Organization (WHO) in 2003 reported that there were 3.5 million new cases of HIV and Aids in Africa.

East and Southern Africa were the hardest hit regions in Africa having 38% of 3.5 million cases on the continent. The pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 17 million Africans and has affected 25 million others living with the disease. And, although ARVs are now being distributed to patients on the continent, greater challenges related to affordability, access and continuity still remain.

Courageous announcements by southern African leaders, have no doubt cast a shining spotlight on Africa giving the marginalized continent a place in worldwide efforts to fight and contain the raging pandemic.

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