World AIDS day marked by pleas for compassion, commitment

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Nelson Mandela, the former president of a country now beset by a deadly AIDS epidemic, commemorated World AIDS Day Saturday by urging South Africa's youth to fight the disease and accept those who suffer from it.

"There is no difference whatsoever between somebody who is HIV-positive and myself," Mandela said. "We should approach people who are HIV-positive. We must give them love and support and not marginalize them."

The plea for commitment and compassion by one of the world's greatest icons was echoed around the developing world, where AIDS continues to take a mounting toll.

Since the disease was first reported two decades ago, an estimated 40 million people worldwide are now HIV positive, 28.1 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa, figures released by UNAIDS this week show. The agency expects AIDS to kill 3 million people this year.

An estimated 4.7 million South Africans -- one in nine -- are HIV positive, more than in any other country, and President Thabo Mbeki's government has come under fire for its haphazard approach toward fighting the epidemic.

"Nothing threatens us more today than HIV/Aids," said Mandela.

National emergency

In Johannesburg, religious leaders, trade unionists and activists held an interfaith service and demanded that AIDS be declared a national emergency.

In neighboring Zimbabwe, where AIDS now claims about 300 lives a day, drum majorettes marched through the capital Harare to raise AIDS awareness, while about 500 people attended a rally where officials urged men to practice safe sex.

In an address at the Vatican, Pope John Paul II offered spiritual solace to AIDS sufferers and urged researchers to keep hunting for a cure. He did not mention his opposition to the use of condoms to combat AIDS, but urged health workers to tell AIDS sufferers Christ would help them.

While many World AIDS Day functions were marked by stark statistics and fears of worse to come, a few countries proclaimed small victories in their struggles against the epidemic.

Cambodia's government trumpeted its success in reducing HIV infection among pregnant women from 3.2 percent in 1997 to 2.3 percent at the end of last year.

In Sudan, the government launched a massive AIDS awareness campaign, ending years of silence about a disease spreading fast in the war-ravaged African country.

But there were ominous warnings from China and Russia.

"At present, the AIDS situation is trending toward rapid increase," Chinese Health Minister Zhang Wenkang said in remarks carried in state newspapers.

Government experts estimate more than 600,000 Chinese citizens were infected with HIV/AIDS by the end of 2000, and say newly reported infections have skyrocketed in recent months.

Russian warning

In Moscow, the head of UNAIDS warned that millions of people could die of AIDS over the next decade unless an effective prevention campaign was mounted. "All will depend on which position the leadership of the country takes," the newspaper Vremya quoted Peter Piot as saying.

While 163,000 HIV cases have been officially registered in Russia since January 1987, many cases go unreported and some estimate up to a million people are infected.

Colorful AIDS awareness campaigns were in full swing around the world Saturday.

In Hanoi, Vietnam, there was a parade of pedicabs decorated with condoms, while Bangladesh issued a commemorative stamp and held street rallies and public discussions. "I care... Do you?" reads the stamp, which depicts a sick man and a pregnant woman.

In Stockholm, Sweden, about 300 people attended a concert and candlelight vigil in memory of AIDS victims.