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Worldās young AIDS fighter may lose his own battle

Nkosi Johnson in school last year
Nkosi Johnson in school  

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- For this 11-year boy, being brave enough to declare -- then openly discuss -- his HIV-positive health status sends a powerful message: AIDS sufferers are very real, very loveable humans.

Nkosi Johnsonās struggle for AIDS awareness, however, veered closer to tragedy Tuesday as the child activist remained in a coma. He has been unable to talk since suffering brain damage last week as the deadly disease spread further through his frail body.

His white foster mother, Gail Johnson, who has been looking after Nkosi since he was abandoned by his HIV-positive natural mother when he was two years old, has already begun musing on the dying boyās importance.

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Known for raising awareness about AIDS, South Africa's Nkosi Johnson may be losing his own battle against the disease, CNN's Cynde Strand reports

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Nkosi's Haven a home for women, children, struck by AIDS
 

"His legacy is that he has taught the world -- and more importantly, South Africans -- that people with AIDS are very normal people that we need to care for" and accept, Johnson said.

Nkosi prompted national soul-searching when his application to join a primary school in 1997 caused uproar among some parents and the school in the upscale Johannesburg suburb where he lives. Now his classmates are among those who wait for word of hope outside his gate.

"I would like to tell him to come back to school to get well," said Edward Bikie, a classmate. Johnson said Nkosi, who could speak and walk normally as recently as a month ago, was now terminally ill.

The small boy became the unofficial spokesman for AIDS in a country where 4.2 million, or one in 10 people, are stricken with the disease. He gained worldwide attention when he stepped to the podium at the opening of the world's biggest AIDS conference in Durban last year and called on South African President Thabo Mbeki to allow the AIDS-fighting drug AZT be used on pregnant mothers and urged others to change public behavior.

Nkosi Johnson with actor Danny Glover
Nkosi Johnson drew worldwide attention to the plight of AIDS sufferers in South Africa  

His clear message of safe sex and other measures contrasted sharply with Mbeki's controversial views, which included questioning the causal link between the HIV virus and AIDS and halting the use of anti-retroviral drugs due to cost and safety concerns.

At the Durban conference, loud applause erupted for Nkosi, while a somber tone persisted for Mbekiās speech on the role of poverty in worsening the disease.

"His greatest contribution was to get public acknowledgment of HIV-AIDS, particularly at a time when (the) government was being circumspect about HIV-AIDS," said Daniel Ncayiyana, editor of the South African Medical Journal.

David Harrison, director of the nationwide anti-AIDS campaign LoveLife, said Nkosi would be remembered as an advocate for change through his unequivocal statement that the disease could be stopped through safe sex and drug treatment.

Nkosi's foster mother Gail Johnson
Nkosi's foster mother Gail Johnson  

"He spoke out at Durban with enormous courage and eloquence. He acted as a catalyst for enormous compassion that you can hug and love a child without risk to yourself," said Yvonne Spain, coordinator of Children in Distress, a welfare group.

To make sure his legacy is not forgotten, Nkosi and Johnson have created a shelter home for HIV-positive mothers and children. Called "Nkosiās Haven," the center is funded by donations.

Johnson said Nkosiās wish for the home was simple, but powerful: "He said to me ĪGail, the mommies and babies must stay together.ā"

CNN Correspondent Cynde Strand and Reuters contributed to this report.



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Protesters target drug firms as AIDS conference opens in South Africa
July 9, 2000

RELATED SITES:
European Union link on AIDS fight
AIDS Foundation of South Africa
USAID
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