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South Africa Emerges From AIDS Denial

Church bells tolled and workers put down their tools on Monday as South Africa observed a minute of silence for AIDS victims and ended a decade of denial about the epidemic.

As ceremonies marked World AIDS Day around the world, the top U.N. official dealing with the disease, Peter Piot, joined South African political leaders and hundreds of activists to show his support for a government that has broken with the discredited AIDS policies of former President Thabo Mbeki.

"We are the first to admit that a lot still needs to be done," said Baleka Mbete, the deputy president, as she lit a candle at a rally in the coastal city of Durban in remembrance of the victims.

Trade unions, too, joined the observances.

"With the young and working age dying in droves, South Africa's death statistics resemble those of a country in a terrible war," the Confederation of South African Trade Unions said.

An estimated 33 million people worldwide have the AIDS virus, the vast majority of them in Africa. But no country is spared.

In a rare government disclosure, Iran said Monday that it has registered more than 18,000 HIV-positive citizens and estimated the true number of infected to be as high as 100,000.

China - which for years also covered up the disease - vowed to do more to tackle the stigma. The government promised to strengthen education about AIDS prevention, increase condom distribution and do more to reach high-risk groups. An estimated 700,000 Chinese have the virus.

The rate of HIV infection in Europe almost doubled between 2000 and 2007, reaching the highest level ever recorded in Europe, the health agencies of the U.N. and European Union said in a jointly issued report. The annual rate of newly diagnosed cases of HIV infection rose to 75 per million people in 2007 from 39 per million in 2000.

South Africa has an estimated 5.5 million people living with the HIV virus - the highest total of any country. About 1,000 South Africans die each day of the disease and complications like tuberculosis. Even more become infected because prevention messages have not worked.

And yet for years, Mbeki's government played down the extent of the crisis. Mbeki himself doubted the link between HIV and AIDS. His health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, openly mistrusted conventional AIDS drugs and instead promoted the value of lemons, garlic, beetroot and the African potato.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health last month calculated that government delays in introducing AIDS drugs between 2000 and 2005 cost more than 330,000 lives in South Africa.

"We have to mourn the lives of those we have not saved," said Barbara Hogan, the health minister who replaced Tshabalala-Msimang after Mbeki was ousted in October. She cited the example of an 8-year-old boy battling both AIDS-related TB and meningitis who was on a waiting list for drugs when he died.

"We could have saved his life," Hogan said. She promised to improve HIV treatment and prevention programs, and to increase the supply of drugs to HIV positive women to stop them from passing the virus on to their unborn children.

South Africa has the biggest program for AIDS drugs in the world. And yet, about half the 800,000 people who need drugs are not receiving them.

The government wants to halve new infections by 2011 and ensure that 80 percent of people with the disease get treatment and care.

But it faces a mammoth task. The Global Fund on AIDS, TB and Malaria has rejected a South African request for nearly $92 million over the next two years for AIDS projects and $68 million for TB prevention and treatment. AIDS campaigners accused the former health minister of failing to respect the fund's strict operating rules.

The fund Monday named French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy as ambassador to protect women and children against AIDS.

The South African ceremonies were an unprecedented show of unity among the government, big business, trade unions and activists. In the past, activists and doctors had to resort to the courts to force the government to provide AIDS drugs.

Church bells rang for a minute's silence at noon, and all banks agreed to cease business for that time. Trials were briefly interrupted. Trade union and business chiefs said they would have a 30-minute work stoppage to talk to their employees and encourage them to be tested - which still remains largely taboo among men. Cell phone services sent text messages to their teenage subscribers.

For more information visit the UNAIDS Web Site.