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African AIDS Activist Speaks Out

This week, for the first time, the United Nations General Assembly will convene a special session on a health crisis: the AIDS epidemic that has killed 21 million people since the 1980s.

About 36 million people, most of them in Africa, are now infected with HIV, and Mercy Makhalemele is one of them.

In South Africa, where most people who have HIV don't know it and refuse to be tested, Mercy is an outspoken AIDS activist.

She was 23 years old, married, and pregnant with her second child when she was diagnosed as HIV positive. Last year, she told CBS's Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes II that nurses wouldn't touch her after her daughter was born.

At 2_ years old, Mercy's daughter died of AIDS. The epidemic is killing African babies a year old or younger at a rate of 290 a week. They are Mercy Makhalemele's reason for speaking out.

She's in New York to take part in the rallies, panel discussions, and meetings surrounding the UN special session. She visited the Saturday Early Show to talk about how the epidemic wiped out everything she had hoped for in her own life, steps her organization is taking to fight the virus in her country, and what she hopes will come out of the first UN special session ever devoted to a global health crisis.

She watched all her hopes in life come unraveled when she finally worked up the courage to tell her husband. She says that she had been faithful to him during their 5-year marriage and that he infected her.

He became livid, accused of her of "sleeping around" while he was away, beat her, and threw her against a stove, burning her arm. The next day he showed up at the store she managed. In front of everyone, he told her to get her things out of their house because he could not live with someone with HIV. Hearing that, her employer fired her that day.

After delivering her baby, she lay on the table for hours because none of the nurses would stitch her up. Finally her aunt, who happened to be a nurse at the hospital, did the work.

Mercy says she prayed hard that her baby wouldn't be HIV positive. But her daughter Nkosi died of AIDS. Her husband, who had refused to admit he was HIV positive, died of AIDS in 1994. Mercy was left alone to raise her son Thabang, now 12, and to face the likelihood that she herself would die young, leaving him an orphan.

She went public with her story in the belief that her experience mirrors that of millions of other African women. For reasons of religion, tradition, or fear, they refuse to talk about AIDS or to seek medical care and counseling.
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