Thursday, April 27, 2006

At least 1 in 5 South African adults is believed to be infected with HIV/AIDS

Shashank Bengali:

The rape trial of South Africa's former deputy president is nearing an end, but AIDS activists are worried that the impact of Jacob Zuma's testimony will linger much longer.

In court this month, Zuma, a charismatic politician and formerly the head of the national AIDS council, acknowledged he had unprotected sex with his accuser even though he knew she was HIV-positive. Then he took a shower, believing that would minimize his risk of contracting the virus.

Such pseudo-science coming from anyone, let alone a man once touted as South Africa's next president, would raise eyebrows. But AIDS activists say it's part of a history of inaccurate and conflicting statements about the disease from the top levels of South Africa's government.

Myths about the disease continue to stymie efforts to fight it.

South Africa has one of the world's highest AIDS caseloads. At least 1 in 5 South African adults is believed to be infected with HIV.

Because Zuma, 64, enjoys a huge following - scores of his supporters have surrounded the courthouse in Johannesburg every day since his trial began - activists believe his testimony could be a major setback in the fight against AIDS.

"It's had a profound effect on the public psyche," said Francois Venter, president of the Southern African HIV Clinicians Society.

Venter said many patients have since asked him whether taking a shower could prevent HIV transmission or whether the risk of a man contracting HIV from a woman was indeed "minimal," as Zuma said in court.

Immediately following the testimony, the society put out a statement refuting Zuma's claims. But Venter said many South Africans are likely to believe Zuma, who's a populist hero, thanks to his role in South Africa's liberation struggle.

AIDS telephone hot lines have reported a spike in calls about "shower prevention" and the efficacy of condoms, activists said.

South Africa is easily the continent's most open, modern society, with a constitution enshrining civil liberties and the rights of women and gays. But the ruling African National Congress party has drawn widespread criticism for downplaying, and in some cases denying, the risks associated with HIV, which afflicts some 6.5 million South Africans, according to official estimates.

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