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Agence France-Presse
Malawi president urges end to AIDS stigma, silence at policy launch
Felix Mponda
February 10, 2004
BLANTYRE, Feb 10 (AFP) - Malawi's President Bakili Muluzi on Tuesday urged Malawians to break the stigma attached to AIDS as a first step in fighting the disease, which has infected more than 14 percent of the country's 11 million people.

"My own brother, third born in our family, died of AIDS three years ago," said Muluzi as he launched a long-awaited official programme to fight the killer disease.

His family had agreed to make known his brother's cause of death to help "change attitudes, break the silence and initiate open talk about sex and AIDS.

"I have no apologies in making this publicly known to Malawians. We should be open and break the silence about HIV/AIDS.

"The fight against the killer disease could only succeed if we break (the) barriers of silence, stigma and discrimination."

Muluzi said that with 350 new infections daily in the impoverished southern African country there was "no alternative but to openly discuss the serious problem that we have, so that we are able to teach people about the dangers of the disease."

"Why hide?" he asked, adding that he had never heard Malawians openly declare at funerals that their relatives had died of HIV/AIDS-related diseases.

Malawi's "home-grown" policy and programme to fight AIDS would offer a legal and administrative framework for HIV/AIDS programmes, largely funded by donors including the European Union, the UN Development Programme, the United States, Britain, Canada and the World Bank, said Muluzi.

It will help Malawi embark on a new path to fighting the epidemic, he added.

The director of the UN AIDS agency, Peter Piot, said his organisation and other donors had mobilised up to 400 million dollars to fight the scourge in Malawi.

He said donors were willing to provide long-term support provided the "money reaches people and the agenda is on action and implementation."

Piot said the new policy would "re-charge our batteries in the long fight against HIV/AIDS and slow down the spread of the disease."

"Stigma turns people away and can kill people before the virus kills them."

Muluzi, who retires in May at the end of his second five-year-term, also implored Malawians to go for HIV tests, saying he himself had undergone one.

For inquisitive Malawians who wanted to know his HIV status, Muluzi added: "The good news is that it is good news.

"How many of us know of our HIV status?" he asked, bemoaning the fact that only three percent of Malawians had been tested.

"What are we afraid of?" Muluzi asked, adding that young people needed to know about their status before marriage.

With donor support, Malawi in 1999 launched a 110-million dollar, five-year plan to break the silence about AIDS.

Biswick Mwale, who heads Malawi's National AIDS Commission, said that under the new AIDS policy some three million dollars will be made available to help subsidise anti-retroviral treatment.

He also added that infection rates appeared to have stabilised.

"The estimated HIV prevalence ... indicates that the epidemic has stabilised over the years," he said.

However, in September, a World Bank report warned that up to half of Malawi's professional workforce could die of HIV/AIDS by 2005.

Professionals in the education and health sectors are particularly affected as are members of the army and the police, the study said.

HIV/AIDS has cut Malawi's life expectancy to just 36, according to the UN Development Programme.

Mwale said about 760,000 adults Malawians were infected with HIV of whom 56 percent were women. Some 70,000 adults die of the disease every year, he added.