June 1, 2002







photos by james sandler

YOUNG VICTIMS 10-year-old Ntombi cries as she recounts being raped eight months earlier by a family friend. Ntombi received smuggled AIDS medication immediately after her assault and has since tested negative for HIV. Millions of South Africans, however, are infected with HIV, and September 11 has done little to draw the world's attention to the national epidemic.

3,000 dead every month in South Africa

In rural, HIV-ridden South Africa, one would expect a place consumed by the AIDS pandemic: the country has more HIV carriers than any other nation in the world, with 4.7 million people infected. But in December, South Africans were consumed with something besides the disease that keeps killing family, friends and neighbors.

"What do you think of Osama bin Laden? Do you know him?" asked Alex Mahlangu, a 30-year-old from Mpumalanga. AIDS killed Mahlangu's older brother last year.

In South Africa, as in the United States, September 11 and America's newest war dominated the headlines as well as collective curiosity. The war on terror has subjugated the global impact of AIDS in Africa - not only in the consciousness of Americans but in the minds of the very people it afflicts, mostly because of the persuasive edge of America-centric global news.

"Are you worried about the anthrax bug?" Mahlangu asked.

But HIV apathy is not as ubiquitous as the disease itself. In 2001, 2.3 million sub-Saharan Africans died of AIDS. The victims were then replaced by 3.4 million new infectees the same year, according to a recent report by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organization.

Distracted by Afghanistan and the Middle East, Washington's weighty influence has done little in recent months to pressure African nations bickering over the best methods to mitigate the epidemic.

Fearing she was exposed to HIV after being gang-raped 15 hours earlier, 24-year-old Leah stares silently as she waits for a rape exam at the Themba Public Hospital in Mpumalanga. The rape allegedlly occurred December 25, 2001.

While nations like Uganda and Nigeria proactively responded to the disease, other countries are taking a more reserved approach. Meanwhile, the number of Africans with HIV/AIDS is ballooning upward from the 28.1 million.

For instance, the South African government spent just over 30 percent of its $17 million AIDS budget in 2000 and has yet to declare the epidemic a national emergency. While nearly one-third of all pregnant women in South Africa test positive for HIV, anti-retroviral drugs effective in preventing mother-to-child transmission of the disease are still widely unavailable in public hospitals.

"If we are talking about [expecting mothers] receiving anti-retrovirals, it may be important but there are a lot of issues we need to look at," said Edith Harrington, deputy director for the Mpumalanga Province HIV/AIDS program. "We may be able to save those children, but we are going to have a population of children without adults to care for them."

As countries like South Africa continue to hedge on efficient HIV strategies, the issue remains largely on the back pages of most U.S. daily newspapers. Unlike terrorism, HIV is the catalyst for a prolonged death - a seemingly irrelevant front page story when the threat of terror looms in American buildings and mailboxes.

"What you guys lost on 9/11 we lose in a month. That's how many AIDS deaths we have in a month," said South African AIDS activist and author David Patient. "But I don't see anyone doing cartwheels and flip-flops and national fundraising drives and all that."

Well-known throughout the African continent for his criticisms of national AIDS policies, Patient is currently spearheading a grassroots public education campaign to raise AIDS awareness in several African countries. He recognizes the need to fight terrorism, but suggests using the proactive fight as a model for another of the world's maladies that kills 2.4 million people per year in Sub-Saharan Africa alone.

"A human life is a human life," Patient said.

- James Sandler

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