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Botswana could beat AIDS in 15 years - U.N. report

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -- Botswana, estimated to have the highest rate of HIV infection in the world, can stop its AIDS epidemic in 15 years through a "social revolution" in sexual behavior along with global support, a U.N. report said.

Titled "Towards an AIDS-Free Generation," the report says the main window of hope is the 80 percent of the population -- about 1.28 million people -- who are free of the AIDS virus and should be kept that way by practicing safe sex.

Botswana President Festus Mogae launched the report by the U.N. Development Program on Thursday in Gaborone, the capital, pledging to head a stepped-up prevention campaign.

"Keeping the HIV-negative part of the population uninfected offers Botswana the best prospects for an AIDS-free generation by 2016," the report said.

"It will require renewed efforts to bring forth a social revolution that will yield the breakthrough in sexual behavioral change that has eluded Botswana since the late '80s, one in which attitudes tend towards personal and collective responsibility to ensure safe sex," it said.

An estimated 28 percent to 36 percent of Botswana's population between the ages of 15 and 49 is infected with HIV or AIDS. One in eight infants is infected at birth, and some 300,000 of the country's 1.6 million people -- nearly one in five -- are HIV-positive, the report said.

But more than half of the AIDS-free population is under 15 years of age, with an estimated HIV infection rate of less than 2 percent, said the report, written by the U.N. Development Program in collaboration with the Botswana government and the Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis.

'Ignorance, denial, stigmatization'

Mogae said that Botswana had had 15 years of information, communication and education about HIV/AIDS but progress had been slow because of "ignorance, denial and stigmatization." Yet knowledge is widespread, and there are indications of a breakthrough, he said.

"People are beginning to talk more openly about the epidemic. Pregnancy amongst teen-agers in school is reported to be on the decline, even if only marginally," he said in an introduction to the report.

"The ideal of an AIDS-free generation requires a return to basics for Botswana," Mogae said.

"We are not a promiscuous society. We do not condone the sexual abuse of children. Neither do we permit wife battering. We have a tradition of respect for marriage and good family life. We must therefore unite in returning to these values and imposing tough sanctions on those who persist with antisocial behavior," he said.

The U.N. agency said it was preparing an education project to be incorporated into school curricula, along with intensive training for teachers. It is based on a Brazilian model that uses television and videos as well as printed materials to explain the epidemic.

But in the meantime, Botswana faces the task of caring for those with AIDS and the 85 people a day who get infected with HIV and will develop AIDS and die within a decade without affordable treatment, the report says.

Most AIDS drugs, despite promises by five of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies to slash their prices, are beyond the reach of most countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

"Nothing we have experienced since independence causes as much human suffering and death as HIV and AIDS," Mogae said.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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