Senegal pledged to abstain from sex and Indian village
women cast off a veil of shame about their HIV status as
World AIDS Day was marked around the globe Thursday.
About 40 million people worldwide are now
infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Some 3
million of them are expected to die of AIDS this year.
Africa, with only 10% of the world's population, suffers
over half of its HIV infections.
Heavily Muslim Senegal is a relative bright spot
on the continent, with only about 1% of the population
infected. Thursday, dozens of children packed into a
schoolhouse in the central Senegal town of Fatick to learn
more about the disease. "Our teacher told us that AIDS is a
very dangerous disease," said 13-year-old Aissatou
Niang, wearing a green head scarf. "Only abstinence
can save us," she said as her schoolmates giggled nearby.
"I've decided to wait until I'm 19 to have a
relationship," said Awa Sarr. "When I go back home
I'll tell my brothers and sisters about AIDS; that's
why we're here."
Such frank talk among African children is likely
to cheer AIDS activists, who say science can help
treat those with HIV but that ignorance or taboos
surrounding its transmission and symptoms means AIDS is hard
to halt--and treat. "We want to say to people
that HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence--there is
treatment, there is life after HIV," Karen Stewart,
with the aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, said at a rally
in Lagos, Nigeria.
In India, some 70 HIV-infected women stepped out
of the shadows during a rally in Golaghat, a town in
the eastern state of Assam, to acknowledge that they
are living with the disease and should not be shunned. "I'm
happy many women have paid heed to our call and have openly
admitted to their HIV-positive status," said Jahnabi
Goswami, 28. "Men with the disease need to follow suit."
An estimated 5.1 million people are living with
HIV in India--the most in any single country
except South Africa. Nigeria, Africa's most populous
nation, is third.
From the far reaches of the globe, solidarity
was shown with the world's AIDS sufferers. Thousands
of candles were lit to illuminate the Swedish winter
gloom, with AIDS vigils planned for the capital, Stockholm,
and a southern city, Malmo.
The British government marked World AIDS Day by
contributing $48 million to the global fight against
Estonia's National Institute for Health
Development campaigned Thursday for increased
tolerance and better integration of HIV-infected persons
into Estonian society. With over 5,000 diagnosed cases,
Estonia--a tiny nation with 1.4 million
inhabitants--has one of the highest HIV infection
rates in Europe, being spread in the country mainly
through drug use.
World religious leaders also added their voices
to calls for renewed commitment to fight the disease.
Speaking Wednesday during his weekly public audience
to several thousand pilgrims and tourists gathered in the
rain in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City, Pope Benedict
XVI called the figures on AIDS victims "alarming" and
reiterated the church's commitment to the care of the sick.
In a statement, Archbishop Christodoulos, head
of the Orthodox Church of Greece, said AIDS sufferers
"should not lose their faith in God but see this major
trial as a spiritual opportunity."
World AIDS Day, meant to boost awareness of the
disease, didn't grab everyone's attention. The day's
events were canceled by royal decree Thursday in
Swaziland, among the hardest-hit countries and Africa's last
absolute monarchy, because they clashed with a traditional
ceremony scheduled for the same day. The announcement
shocked activists in a country of 1 million where more
than 38% of adults are infected with HIV--the
highest infection rate in the world.
Only a few dozen joined a procession in
Nigeria's biggest city, Lagos. "Since I believe I
don't have it, I don't see why I should march," said
Mufu Adebajo, a 22-year-old craftsman watching from his
roadside stand. "Otherwise, people will think I have it."