A concert for Africa's future

SUN JOURNAL

AIDS: As the disease continues to ravage a continent, musicians join to raise awareness -- and money.

December 01, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africans may have long forgotten the passionate anti-apartheid speeches they heard during their struggle against white minority rule. But few forget the music. More than any speech, the songs and chants of protest united and inspired generations of South Africans to join the fight for political freedom.

Now music may help save South Africa once again.

To mark World AIDS Day, which is today, a long list of musicians -- including U2's Bono, Peter Gabriel, Beyonce Knowles, The Eurythmics, Queen, and even reclusive folk singer Yusuf Islam (better known as Cat Stevens) -- flew to South Africa at the invitation of former South African President Nelson Mandela to sing at an AIDS awareness concert in Cape Town Saturday night.

Modeled on the Live Aid concerts of 1985 that raised millions of dollars to fight hunger in Ethiopia, Nelson Mandela's 46664 concert to fight AIDS will be broadcast today on MTV and television networks worldwide and call on viewers to make donations to combat the epidemic. Organizers say it will reach about 2 billion people in 166 countries.

"46664 was my prison number for the 18 years that I was imprisoned on Robben Island. I was supposed to be reduced to that number," Mandela, 85, told an audience of 40,000 people gathered in Cape Town's Green Point Stadium, within sight of Robben Island. "Millions of people infected with HIV and AIDS are in danger of being reduced to mere numbers unless we act. They too are serving a prison sentence for life."

It's unclear how much money the musical event will raise. If nothing else, it offered a few hours of inspiration after a week of gloomy forecasts about the steady march of HIV/AIDS across the African continent and the globe.

This year, AIDS has killed 3 million people worldwide, and 5 million people became newly infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, the highest figures ever recorded for one year, according to a report released last week by the United Nations and the World Health Organization. The number of people infected with the virus now stands at 40 million.

The hardest-hit part of the world remains sub-Saharan Africa, where 26.6 million people are infected with the virus, including 3.2 million who became infected during the last year. Of the 3 million AIDS deaths worldwide this year, more than 2 million of the victims lived in sub-Saharan Africa.

From the tiniest villages to the largest cities in Africa, hospital wards spill over with skeletal AIDS victims lying listlessly in beds or lingering in hallways, waiting to take their last breaths. For the living, mourning has become a painful routine. Each weekend the survivors trudge to the graveyards, carrying the epidemic's latest victims, knowing that next week there will likely be new bodies to bury. In a region of the world where many economies lay in ruins, coffin making remains a top growth industry.

And the worst is yet to come, experts fear.

"It is quite clear that our current global efforts remain entirely inadequate for an epidemic that is continuing to spiral out of control. AIDS is tightening its grip on southern Africa and threatening other regions of the world," said Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, in a statement last week.

A new wave of infections is spreading across China, India, Indonesia and Russia, according to the United Nations report. The report calls on the countries to increase efforts to prevent the spread of the epidemic. Piot warned that these countries can "act now or pay later -- as Africa is having to pay."

Perhaps no country is paying a higher price than South Africa, where an estimated 5.3 million people are infected with HIV -- more than any other country in the world.

"Because of South Africa's relatively recent epidemic and given current trends, AIDS deaths will continue to increase rapidly over the next five years at least; in short the worst lies ahead," the report says. The one way to stop such a disaster is "a speedily-realized national antiretroviral program," the report adds.

In recent years, such a program appeared out of the question in South Africa, where President Thabo Mbeki drew worldwide criticism for questioning whether HIV causes AIDS and his health minister dismissed anti-AIDS drugs as toxic.

But after years of public outcry, South Africa announced last month that it would make the drugs available to the public. Under the treatment rollout program, there will be one treatment site in each of the country's health districts and within five years treatment facilities in each municipality.

Despite the applause surrounding the announcement, many challenges remain. There is an acute shortage of nurses and properly trained health workers to administer the treatment programs. Millions of dollars must be spent on training to meet the demand for treatment.

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