AIDS ‘Icon’ Dead at 12

nkosi johnson AIDS south africa July 2000 International Aids Conference AP

Nkosi Johnson, a boy who was born with HIV and became a poster boy for the struggle against AIDS in Africa, died Friday of the disease he battled for all 12 of his years.

His death comes as the international health community marks the 20th anniversary of the discovery of the AIDS virus this month.

Nkosi was praised for his openness about his infection in a country where people suspected of carrying the AIDS virus often are shunned by their families and chased from their communities. Former South African President Nelson Mandela called him an “icon of the struggle for life.”

“Children, such as Nkosi Johnson, should be enjoying a life filled with joy and laughter and happiness,” Mandela said in a recent statement. “On a frightening scale, HIV/AIDS is replacing that joy, laughter and happiness with paralyzing pain and trauma.”

Mandela’s wife, Grace Machel Mandela, cochairman of the Global Health Council, told CBS News Friday morning that much could have been done to prevent the boy’s death.

Speaking from Washington, where she was attending an AIDS conference, Mrs. Mandela told The Early Show anchor Bryant Gumbel that the health of children in Africa is directly tied to the state of women’s health, which she said has been ignored because of discrimination. She said one in four South African women, aged 20-29, is infected with HIV and improving their health and educating them about health issues would do much to prevent the spread of AIDS to their unborn children.

Nkosi had collapsed in December with brain damage and viral infections. His foster mother, Gail Johnson, said he died peacefully in his sleep in the morning.

“It is a great pity that this young man has died, he was very bold,” Nelson Mandela said Friday.

During his short life, Nkosi successfully contested the policies that kept HIV-infected children out of public schools. He talked about his own infection, challenging people to re-examine their fear of those afflicted with AIDS.

“He had an awareness of the threat to his life and the importance of his life in lessening the threat to other people with AIDS,” Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron, who is also infected with the virus, told The Associated Press in January.

Parliament passed motions Friday expressing regret and sadness at Nkosi's death, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions said Nkosi “inspired all people suffering from the disease.”

Nkosi was born Feb. 4, 1989, with the virus that causes AIDS. His mother could not afford to bring him up, and Johnson became his foster mother when he was 2. Nkosi's mother died of AIDS-related diseases in 1997.

That same year, Johnson and Nkosi successfully battled to force a public primary school to admit him. The fight led to a policy forbidding schools from discriminating against HIV-positive children, and to guidelines for how schools should treainfected pupils.

Nkosi became internationally known with a speech at the opening of the 13th International AIDS conference last July in Durban, South Africa, in which he asked that AIDS sufferers no longer be stigmatized.

Nkosi helped raise money for Nkosi's Haven, a Johannesburg shelter for HIV-positive women and their children. He was crushed when a 3-month old baby his foster mother cared for died of AIDS.

“He hated seeing sick babies and sick children,” Johnson said.

The experience led to his speech at the AIDS conference, where he urged the South African government to start providing HIV-positive pregnant women with drugs to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus during childbirth. About 200 HIV-positive children are born in South Africa each day, but most die before they reach school age.

A year later the government is still studying proposals to use the drugs.

“(Nkosi) was a symbol of resistance in a different sort of way, and I hope that this is now a lesson for us as government to do our best to deal with this AIDS scourge,” Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a member of parliament and head of the ruling African National Congress' women's league, told 702 talk radio.

Johnson said Nkosi had done more for AIDS sufferers in South Africa than anyone else.

“Nkosi wanted people to know that infected people, and especially children, deserve everything in the world,” she said. “His legacy is that we will care for them.”

A foundation named after Nkosi will be established to raise money to help AIDS orphans and infected mothers and their children, she said.


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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