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Bush touts African AIDS triumphs

The president starts his five-nation tour Tuesday in Senegal, which has Africa's lowest HIV infection rate.

By Nicole ItanoSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 8, 2003



JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA

Tuesday President Bush will step off Air Force One into the dry, summer heat of Senegal, one of Africa's oldest democracies and the country with the lowest HIV-infection rate on the continent.

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The stop will mark the beginning of a whirlwind, five-day tour during which Mr. Bush will travel to five nations considered, in different ways, Africa's best hopes: Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda, and Nigeria. Although recent instability in Liberia and increasing international pressure on the US to send peacekeepers there is likely to dominate discussions through the week, Bush's itinerary is intended to highlight the continent's successes.

High on the president's agenda is Africa's AIDS crisis, to which he has pledged $15 billion over the next five years. According to the United Nations, 30 million Africans are HIV-positive, with 3.5 million new infections last year alone. Some 11 million children have been orphaned and at least 3 million infected. Bush says his plan will prevent 11 million new infections, treat 2 million cases, and help care for 10 million orphans.

Three of the countries on the president's itinerary - Uganda, Senegal, and Botswana - are emerging as AIDS-fighting models and examples that the president is likely to look to as he implements his program. Uganda is the first African country to reverse the epidemic by reducing the number of new infections; Senegal has kept its total infection rate near 1 percent; and Botswana, now facing the highest infection rate in the world, is the first country to launch a free, universal drug-access program.

A key force that unites the three countries in their fight against AIDS is political will. The current leaders - Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, and Festus Mogae of Botswana - have been among the most outspoken on the disease, both in their own countries and abroad.

"I think what's been so important has been the mobilization of the highest political leaders...." says Stephen Lewis, the UN's special envoy for AIDS in Africa. "There are now various leaders on the continent who are talking about AIDS."

On a continent where some countries are facing HIV-infection rates of more than 30 percent, Senegal's modest rate of 1.4 percent is no small achievement.

Senegal was one of the first African countries to aggressively combat the epidemic through a variety of actions. Behavior-modification campaigns were launched encouraging youths to delay their first sexual experiences or to use condoms.Religious leaders from the country's two main faiths, Christianity and Islam, were encouraged to help educate the public. And prostitutes were targeted with safe-sex campaigns and frequently tested for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

"One reason for our success is political will and early response," says Fatimata Sy, Senegal's country director for Family Health International, a US-funded program. "Since 1986, when we had the first cases, Senegal never denied the problem. That year ... they put in place the national AIDS-control program."

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