|Zimbabwe holds first national meeting on AIDS crisis
|HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwe opened its first national AIDS conference on Tuesday, spotlighting a health disaster that critics of its government say has been overshadowed by mounting economic and political problems.|
According to official figures, 24.6% of Zimbabwe’s adult population is infected with HIV, one of the highest rates in the world. The number of HIV/AIDS cases in Zimbabwe rose to about 1.8 million in 2003, 18 years after its first case was reported in 1985.
Health ministry officials say up to 3,000 people in Zimbabwe die of AIDS-related illnesses each week, and figures released at Tuesday’s conference showed that 135,000 succumbed to the pandemic last year alone.
About 166,000 new HIV infections were recorded in 2003, while 138,000 new cases of full-blown AIDS were reported.
The figures were below official projections of 294,000 new HIV infections and 252,000 new AIDS cases provided last August. Officials had no immediate explanation for the drop, but have pointed to changes in behavior and AIDS awareness prompted by a national publicity campaign.
This week’s conference is aimed at giving officials, health workers and community groups a chance to draw up plans for fighting the disease, an increasing threat to societies and economies across southern Africa.
AIDS has exacerbated the plight of Zimbabweans amid the country’s worst economic crisis since independence in 1980, shown in chronic shortages of foreign currency, fuel and food, high inflation and unemployment, and collapsing health services.
In a statement on Tuesday, the United Nations office in Zimbabwe, which is co-sponsoring the conference, said while new HIV infections appeared on the decline, economic hardships had led people, particularly women, to take sexual risks.
"Risky sexual behavior, including unsafe sex in exchange for cash, food, tillage (of fields) and agricultural inputs, jobs or other basic necessities, persist," the U.N. said.
President Robert Mugabe’s government denies accusations it has lacked the political will to effectively deal with the AIDS crisis and last month began distributing cheaper, locally manufactured antiretroviral drugs to combat the disease.
Prior to the program, only Zimbabwe’s elite had access to imported drugs, which were priced beyond the reach of the poor majority. Health Ministry officials estimated 5,000 people are on ARV drugs in the country and said the government hopes to expand the program around the country in the next six months.