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Africa's leaders failing on AIDS - U.N.
  Tue 30 May 2006 10:59 AM ET
By Andrew Quinn
JOHANNESBURG, May 30 (Reuters) - Africa's leaders are failing the continent in their response to HIV/AIDS, with lack of political will a key reason the epidemic is still killing millions after 25 years, UNAIDS said on Tuesday.
"There is need for much greater and stronger leadership," said Mark Stirling, director of the Eastern and Southern Africa office of the U.N. AIDS organisation, which on Tuesday released its latest assessment of the global epidemic.
Despite positive signs in the UNAIDS report, including indications HIV prevalence is falling in Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe, the overall AIDS picture for Africa remains bleak with the disease racking up grim gains in South Africa and other nearby countries.
Southern Africa is home to 14.9 million of the world's estimated 38.6 million people living with HIV, and accounted for about half of the 2.8 million AIDS-related deaths in 2005.
"Close to 60 percent of the global human loss is in our region, it's a grim situation," Stirling told a news briefing held to mark the release of the UNAIDS report in New York.
Twenty-five years after AIDS was identified in 1981, southern Africa is the epicentre of world's AIDS crisis.
But the epidemic is at different stages around the region, ranging from Swaziland, which recorded an HIV prevalence rate of some 42 percent of women visiting antenatal clinics, to Madgascar, where the prevalence was less than one percent.
Stirling said many countries still lacked effective HIV/AIDS prevention programmes, which are harder to organise than campaigns for delivering anti-AIDS drugs.
"The reason southern Africa is so affected by AIDS is delay in responding, and the failure of decision-makers to unblock problems," Stirling said.
SOUTH AFRICA'S AGONIES South Africa, one of the world's worst hit countries with more than 5 million of its 45 million people infected with HIV, has come in for particular criticism by activists who charge President Thabo Mbeki's government has done too little, too late to stop the disease.
Hundreds of members of the Treatment Action Campaign, the country's most influential AIDS pressure group, marched on government offices in Pretoria on Tuesday to highlight what they said were government "lies" over AIDS treatment in the country.
"The truth is that we have the biggest need in the world and we are not meeting that need," TAC founder Zackie Achmat told the SAPA news agency.
UNAIDS highlighted some positive signs including reported drops in HIV prevalence in Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe, described as the results of programmes designed to discourage multiple sexual partners and to encourage the use of condoms.
Another upbeat sign was recent research in South Africa which indicated that circumcising men could reduce their chances of HIV infection by up to 65 percent -- a study whose results were so conclusive that the research project was stopped and all male participants were offered immediate circumcisions.
Helen Jackson, an AIDS advisor for the U.N. Population Fund, said researchers were awaiting results on similar studies in Uganda and Kenya which could confirm male circumcision as a powerful new tool in Africa's AIDS fight.
"Nobody is saying that male circumcision is a silver bullet," Jackson said. "But it is a strategy that could make an enormous contribution."
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