June 14, 2004
More than 500 government, business and community delegates are expected to attend Zimbabwe's first national AIDS conference starting Tuesday. Health ministers from Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho are expected to discuss their countries' experiences in the HIV/AIDS fight at the four-day conference, sponsored by UNAIDS and the European Union among others. Zambia's former President Kenneth Kaunda, now an AIDS activist, will be the conference's keynote speaker, and President Robert Mugabe will also address the conference.
The conference is expected to assess Zimbabwe's current HIV/AIDS efforts and find new ways to tackle the pandemic. "While a lot has been done to address the problem of HIV/AIDS, the challenge to prevent HIV transmissions remains significant and complex," a conference document said. "In spite of near universal levels of awareness having been achieved, knowledge gaps, negative attitudes, inappropriate decision-making and negative behaviour still characterize the AIDS arena," the statement said.
Zimbabwe is two decades into its AIDS pandemic, and conservative estimates put HIV/AIDS prevalence at 25 percent, with 30 percent of pregnant women infected. Independent studies show that more than 3,000 Zimbabweans die of AIDS-related illnesses each week, and around 70 percent of hospital admissions in the country are related to AIDS. Last year, it was reported that the number of AIDS dead at government hospital morgues exceeded their intake capacity more than threefold.
In 1999, Zimbabwe declared HIV/AIDS a national disaster and introduced a 3 percent levy on income tax to finance the launch of a national AIDS trust fund and other AIDS-fighting programs. In May, the government began providing free antiretrovirals to patients at state-run hospitals with the goal of getting tens of thousand of people on therapy.