June 14, 2006

UN AIDS Chief Sees New Openness on HIV in Africa

By Mabvuto Banda

BLANTYRE -- Africans' increasing openness about HIV/AIDS is helping to turn the tide against the epidemic although tens of thousands still die needlessly, the top U.N. AIDS official said on Wednesday.

Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, said he is seeing more Africans go public with their HIV-positive status, a key to reversing the social stigma that continues to be one of the deadliest elements of Africa's AIDS crisis.

"I have met people opening up and living positively with HIV not only in Malawi, but in Tanzania, Mozambique. This was not the case two years ago and this means that we are making progress," Piot told Reuters in Malawi, where an estimated 10 people die every hour from the disease.

Reversing stigma has been a major goal of international AIDS control efforts, but has met with limited success in Africa where the illness was until very recently still considered an automatic death sentence.

In South Africa, where some 5.5 million people are infected with HIV, only a tiny handful of public figures have come forward about their HIV status while in other African countries many people hide their infection for fear of retribution.

Malawi, an impoverished country of 12 million people, lies close to the heart of southern Africa's HIV/AIDS epidemic and has already lost an estimated million lives to the disease.

Piot said that along with showing increasing openness about AIDS, Malawi was also demonstrating that even poor countries can ramp up programs for both prevention and treatment that yield real results.

Malawi's HIV prevalence rate, which was about 16 percent two years ago, has now stabilized at 14 percent while the number of people on life-saving antiretroviral drugs has shot up from 4,000 in 2004 to 48,000 now -- although still well short of the 187,000 estimated to need treatment.

Malawi's aggressive HIV/AIDS information campaign has also dramatically boosted the number of people going for voluntary testing, the first defense against the disease's further spread.

"We are at a turning point in HIV response in Africa and we are starting to see results. Countries in East Africa are reporting good results due to access to testing and treatment," Piot said.

"Malawi is not yet there but all the signs of getting their are evident," Piot said.

But Piot said the apparent leveling off of Malawi's HIV prevalence numbers was not good enough, noting the country still saw about 90,000 new infections last year -- reflecting a troubling trend across Africa.

"Of course it has stabilized because it is not moving up but still the number is unacceptable and more work needs to be done," Piot said.

The UNAIDS chief visited Dedza, a poor district about 100 km (62 miles) from the capital Lilongwe, which has one doctor serving a population of 624,000 but where local residents have taken the initiative to form support groups that are often a crucial part of a community HIV/AIDS response.