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Botswana: Ravaged by AIDS, but fighting back

From Jeff Koinange
CNN

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7-year-old Mercy Banyekitse prepares to take her AIDS cocktails.

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Botswana
AIDS (Disease)

GABERONE, Botswana (CNN) -- It's early in the morning in the Botswanan capital of Gaberone. Seven-year-old Mercy Banyekitse is taking her daily dose of AIDS cocktails, the miracle drugs that have prolonged the lives of tens of thousands of Botswanans infected with HIV.

Mercy understands that she must swallow the bitter pills or she won't make it to adulthood. And she's not alone. At the Botswana Baylor Children's Clinic, it's standing room only, where children come to get their medication for the disease that is rampant in this tiny south African nation.

Each week, more than 500 HIV-positive mothers and their children come for their checkups and free antiretrovirals, or ARVs -- medication that just a few years ago was not available.

"Before ARVs became available, I was very miserable -- walking into the wards everyday seeing those wasted children there with their parents," said Gabriel Anabwani, the executive director of Botswana Baylor Children's Clinic.

Welcome to Botswana, a nation tucked between Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. More than 350,000 people here are infected with HIV. AIDS has killed an estimated 26,000 and left about 69,000 children orphaned, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The United Nations Development Program estimates that 20 percent of all children in Botswana will be orphaned by 2010.

The disease has been so crippling here that health officials say the life expectancy has dropped from 65 years in the early 1990s to less than 40 years a decade later. The CDC says the African nation is "experiencing one of the most severe HIV/AIDS epidemics in the world."

Of those infected with HIV, only about 60,000, or roughly one in six infected people, are on the drug cocktails, which brings hope to mothers like Ingrid Kaelotswe

"If we didn't have ARVs today, maybe he would be dead by now," she said of her son.

With its robust diamond mining industry, Botswana has prospered, allowing the government to allocate more than $100 million a year to fighting HIV/AIDS. That's half of the country's health budget.

Botswana is also one of 15 countries targeted under a U.S.-backed "Emergency Plan," through which nongovernmental organizations work to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS through a host of programs. And help is starting to pour in from the West, with funding coming from The Clinton Global Initiative, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other organizations.

But free medical service is useless to the thousands who don't know they have HIV -- people like Muephu Moeloring, who resisted for years before finally agreeing to be tested.

"A lot of people are still in denial that HIV/AIDS exists," he said.

While testing in Botswana is strictly voluntary, the country's health minister would rather make it mandatory.

"But really, in the (end), it's up to the individual to say this is a problem for myself, this is a problem for my family, for my community -- and I'm going to ensure I'm going to prevent HIV," Health Minister Sheila Tchlou said.

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