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Focus is on South Africa ahead of global AIDS conference
Grassroots efforts provide vital help in African crisis
DURBAN, South Africa (CNN) -- With growing concern, the world is becoming aware of the devastation AIDS is causing in sub-Saharan Africa. And in large ways and small, governments, organizations and individuals are stepping in to help.
The 13th International AIDS Conference is set to begin Sunday in Durban, South Africa. Some 10,000 to 12,000 experts are expected to take part in a week of conferences on how to treat HIV and AIDS, and how to help the people who must live with the disease.
The event has particular resonance this year, said Peter Busse, co-chairman of the conference's community program, because for the first time, it is taking place in the region most affected by the disease.
"We have a unique opportunity to focus our energies and attention on the epidemic where its impact and efforts are being felt most by individuals, families, communities and countries," he said.
Controversy amid the crisis
The crisis has recently come into sharper focus worldwide. U.S. President Bill Clinton recently declared the global AIDS crisis a threat to American security. Five international pharmaceutical companies have pledged to slash the cost of AIDS drugs in Africa. And South African President Thabo Mbeki has come under fire for his appointments of controversial scientists to his advisory panel on the crisis.
But AIDS specialists said Friday they are hopeful the controversy over Mbeki's positions can be put to rest when the conference opens. The president is scheduled to deliver the keynote address to delegates.
"I think we are expecting the president to resolve this issue when he opens the conference," Dr. Salim Abdool-Karim told Reuters. He is head of the HIV/AIDS research unit of South Africa's Medical Council.
Mbeki's presidential panel is expected to announce a strategic plan for dealing with HIV and AIDS. Among the steps will be scrutiny of tests used to diagnose HIV, the virus commonly believed to cause AIDS, and consideration of other factors like tuberculosis and malnutrition that could contribute to the disease.
The campaign also lays out treatment guidelines, safe sex progams, and better testing and counseling measures. Members noted, however, that funding such projects would be expensive, and developing them would require extensive infrastructure.
'A drop in the bucket'
But before this heightened level of attention to Africa's AIDS crisis, grassroots groups were quietly working to contain the epidemic one day at a time, one person at a time.
Dr. Mark Ottenweller used to practice medicine in Atlanta. But for the past 11 years, the internist has been director of the Soweto AIDS Program for Hope Worldwide in the slums outside Johannesburg.
"It was an adventure, then it became a passion," he said, "when you see the needs of the people and how they appreciate it."
Ottenweller and other volunteers help by talking up AIDS prevention and distributing condoms. "We feel like we're a drop in the bucket," said the physician. "We just want to be a big drop."
Michael Scholl of Baltimore is working with another kind of drop -- the one that comes with a basketball. As a staff member of a group called LoveLife, he teaches the game to young South Africans. But along with the courtside lessons, he hands out lessons on life.
"Although itís just a game, it can teach you some principles that help in the real world . . . hard work, discipline, determination, perseverance, a sense of teamwork.
Volunteers such as Ottenweller and Scholl are desperately needed in sub-Saharan Africa, where AIDS has overwhelmed many countries. Nearly 7 million people between the ages of 15 to 24 are believed to be living with HIV, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS.
Helping the children
Among children, the disease has been especially devastating. So far, the UNAIDS group says, more than 13 million African children under the age of 15 have been orphaned by AIDS. And as new HIV infections spread through South Africa, some authorities say that half of South Africans under age 20 today will not live to see 35.
"Especially in Africa, decades of gains in education and health are being eradicated by this epidemic," warned Dr. Kathleen Cravero, deputy executive director of the UN's HIV/AIDS program.
In some countries, HIV-positive patients take up as many as 70 percent of all beds in big city hospitals. Deaths among health care professionals and teachers are on the rise. One study in Zambia found that HIV-related deaths among hospital workers had increased 13-fold over 10 years.
The Rev. Angelo D'Agostino does what he can for the children.
A Jesuit priest and psychiatrist, D'Agostino built an orphanage for HIV-positive children five years ago in Kenya. He started with three youngsters. Now, his Nyumbani Orphanage houses 70 children in family-style surroundings.
"It offers them a chance to have a happy, healthy, enjoyable life, which they wouldnít have otherwise," says D'Agostino. "As far as Iím concerned, itís the most rewarding work Iíve done, in either medicine or priesthood."
CNN Producer Christy Feig and Reuters contributed to this report.
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