African leaders urged to test for Aids


African leaders need to set an example and submit themselves publicly to tests for Aids if they really want to demonstrate their determination to fight the disease, according to campaigners.

Around 6 500 Africans are estimated to die every day from Aids but the stigma that continues to surround the disease means that members of the political elite are all too often reluctant to talk openly about it.

Former South African president Nelson Mandela was widely praised last year when he spoke about the death of his son Makgatho but campaigners say public figures are usually keen to keep such matters private.

South Africa's main anti-Aids lobby, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), believes that the battle against Aids would take a significant step forward if more leaders were prepared to undergo public Aids tests.

"The general response is that testing should not be a public event," said TAC national organiser Nonkosi Khumalo.

"It basically means everyone for him/herself. It really doesn't help the situation.

"We believe if high-profile people speak out and also go for tests, it will reduce negative perceptions about the disease," she told AFP.

Few leaders have undergone NIV tests

Malawian President Bhingu wa Mutharika is one of the few leaders who has undergone tests for HIV, receiving the all-clear in July.

According to the United Nations' HIV/AIDS coordinator in Malawi, where nearly 15 percent of the 13 million population are infected with the disease, others are only prepared to act openly only up to a point.

Bhatupe Mhango told AFP that 15 Malawian lawmakers who underwent tests earlier this year had so far failed to declare the results.

"Even if they come out and say eight of the 15 are negative and not give out names, it would make a huge difference to the way people look at HIV positive people," said Mhango, who has been living with the disease for five years.

"It would make the disease look like any other disease, and not be associated with promiscuity.

"People should see officials as being part of us, that our problems are theirs."

Similar sentiments are to be heard in Swaziland, home to Africa's last absolute monarchy.

King Mswati III, who has 13 wives, has never been known to have undergone an AIDS test in a country where 42.6 percent of the population is HIV positive.

Thembi Nkambule, head of the Swaziland National Network for People Living with HIV and AIDS, said there was a great need for government officials, including the king, to lead the way and be tested.

Officials are currently only calling on people "to abstain or condomise without encouraging those people to know their status," she told AFP.

"It's quite demoralising considering the fact that statistics are shooting to the rooftop. We would expect our leaders to be more committed to the fight against AIDS," she added.

Could a leader admit to being HIV positive

Gail Johnson, whose foster son Nkosi died of Aids at the age of 13 and who made a gripping plea at an international AIDS conference in 2001 to treat people with AIDS as "normal people", said the ultimate challenge was whether a leader could ever admit to being HIV positive.

"If they tested, it would be stunning, but I think it won't make any difference unless a president only comes out and says 'I have tested positive'," Johnson, from Johannesburg, told AFP. "

He needs to say 'I have tested positive and this is the role I am going to play to de-stigmatise and normalise the disease'. What is needed is a support system for poor people suffering from HIV/Aids."

United Nations estimates say that 29.4 million of the 42 million people living with AIDS worldwide reside in sub-Saharan Africa.