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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

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Health-Africa-AIDS-stigma: Africa's AIDS pandemic finds a friend in stigma

Agence France-Presse -
September 23, 2003
Lillian Omariba

NAIROBI, Sept 23 (AFP) - Titus, a shy four-year-old with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), carries Africa's stigma against AIDS. Literally.

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From his chest to the soles of his feet, his skin is pitted with the scars of cigarette burns inflicted by his uncle and aunt, who took Titus and his twin brother into their home after the boys' parents died of AIDS.

Eventually, the authorities intervened to haul the abused child away from his extended family and place him in an orphanage -- but not before his sibling had fallen sick, withered away and died.

"Discrimination against people with HIV is widespread," says Irvin Schwandt, an evangelical Christian who, with his wife Ruth, runs an orphanage in Nairobi's outskirts where Titus and other abandoned children, both with and without the virus, have been given a new home.

"If a child's parents die from AIDS, the child is taken into the extended family, which very often already is under big financial stress.

"Very often, the relatives do not want the child. They give preference to their own children, giving them the right to eat first and giving the leftovers to the newcomer. Some would even rather starve the child or torture it to death."

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The ignorance and hatred encountered by Titus is mirrored across the continent, experienced not just by the millions of children orphaned or infected by AIDS but by men and women, too.

Now well into its third decade, the fight against AIDS has shown again and again that stigma is the disease's best friend, for it encourages lies instead of honesty and secrecy instead of transparency, creating ideal conditions for it to flourish.

In Africa, where 20 million have died from AIDS and 30 million people today have the disease or the virus, discrimination remains deeply entrenched, defying the appeals of Nelson Mandela and other leaders to root it out.

"As the epidemic reaches further and deeper into societies, so does the fear that surrounds it," the UN agency UNAIDS said in a report issued on Sunday to coincide with the opening here of the International Conference on AIDS and Sexually-transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA).

"In many countries and communities, the shame and stigma associated with being HIV-positive have reinforced denial and hindered effective action. Friends and family die 'after a long illness,' never of AIDS."

Despite the bravery of people living openly with HIV, stigma is a potent psychological pressure that can wreck prevention efforts, it said.

Many delegates at ICASA, running in Nairobi until Friday, said it was time to take a fresh look at how stigma should be tackled -- including a mea culpa by people in authority.

"Religious leaders have contributed to stigma because they regard the victims as sinners and adulterers," Sheikh Al Haj Yussuf, vice chair of Kenya Muslim Supreme Council, said.

"It is still a taboo of sexuality. The link is: AIDS equals sex and sin, because people are reluctant and fear to speak about it openly," said a South African priest, Reverend Jape Heath, a coordinator of African Network of Religious Leaders Living with HIV.

Kenya's first lady, Lucy Kibaki, launched a campaign against AIDS stigma on Monday, bringing in other presidential wives in Africa.