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Mozambique Has Face To Go With AIDS

December 15, 1999

MAPUTO, Mozambique (AP) _ In a country where the victims of a raging AIDS epidemic are shunned, the death notice was groundbreaking.

The family announcement in the newspaper Noticias said Boaventura Machel, brother of Mozambique’s independence hero and the nation’s first president, was a ``victim of AIDS.″

In Mozambique, it is rare for families, even privately, to acknowledge a death from AIDS. Activists contend this kind of silence contributes to a national state of denial about the epidemic, and that more disclosures are needed to raise awareness and prompt people to take precautions. About one in seven people in Mozambique are infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS.

Speaking out is not easy in southern Africa. A woman was beaten to death last year in neighboring South Africa after she publicly disclosed during World AIDS Day that she had the virus.

Only a handful of such announcements have been made in neighboring countries by prominent figures. The silence in Zimbabwe was broken in 1996 when Joshua Nkomo, who led the independence struggle against British rule, acknowledged that his son Ernest died of AIDS. And in South Africa, a well-known judge recently announced he had AIDS, in what he said was an effort to combat the stigma.

The Nov. 27 announcement of Machel’s death two days earlier caused friction within Mozambique’s best-known family.

After returning to Maputo from his burial in a southern village, Machel’s widow said she had not wanted his AIDS status publicized. She said sister-in-law Graca Machel _ widow of former President Samora Machel and now married to Nelson Mandela _ had placed the ad in the newspaper Noticias without consulting her.

Graca Michel is known in Mozambique for her activism in the campaign against AIDS. She did not return calls to her Johannesburg office for comment.

In Mozambique and much of the region, children with AIDS have been expelled from school. Adults with the virus have been fired from their jobs. Lifelong friends no longer come around when word gets out that someone has AIDS.

``AIDS is not considered like malaria or cancer. There’s a belief that if you have AIDS, you must have been doing something wrong,″ said Jill Shumann, of Population Services International, a Washington-based organization that promotes AIDS prevention in Mozambique.

Prime Minister Pascoal Mocumbi, who is a physician, is frustrated that his countrymen don’t see the unfolding national crisis and has urged families of AIDS victims to disclose the cause of death.

``People never say their relatives died of AIDS,″ he complained at a news conference in July. ``They say it was liver failure, tuberculosis or some other infection.″

Mozambique’s infection rate is lower than neighboring areas but is growing alarmingly.

About 14.5 percent of adult Mozambicans nationwide have HIV, compared to up to 40 percent in a region of South Africa that borders Mozambique. Many Mozambican border posts were closed during the 15-year civil war that ended in 1992, slowing the epidemic that has marched south from east-central Africa.

Experts say 20 percent of adults in Mozambique’s central provinces have HIV, and that the number of infections are doubling every two years.

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