Source: News24.Com, 12:05 - (SA)

Aids Workers Battle Myth and Ignorance

Johannesburg - While confusion over Aids spreads in South Arica where the government disputes the causal link between HIV and the disease, health workers say they already have their hands full trying to counteract ignorance and myths about the pandemic.

The most serious among these, they say, is that men can be cured of Aids by raping a child, or having sex with a virgin.

Another myth gaining currency in rural areas, according to health workers involved in prevention programmes, is that HIV/Aids was created and spread by apartheid chemical warfare expert Wouter Basson in an attempt to wipe out black people.

In some communities, xenophobia comes into play, with people believing HIV/Aids is the result of witchcraft being practised on them by immigrants from other parts of Africa.

According to Barbara Kenyon, co-ordinator of a rape project in eastern Mpumalanga province, the number of children being raped because men believe this will cure them of Aids has "skyrocketed" since the beginning of the year.

Government figures show already 4.2 million South Africans are infected with HIV, while health workers claim about 1 500 new cases of infection are occurring daily -- partly because of some men's belief that sleeping with a virgin will cure them of Aids.

In parts of Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces in particular, meanwhile, the Basson myth is creating a nightmare for health workers trying to convince communities to change their sexual behaviour in order to prevent HIV infection.

"People in rural communities in particular are spreading the myth," said Dawn Jackson, head of the Aids Training Information Counselling Centre (ATICC), an initiative of the Port Elizabeth municipality.

"It is proving a real challenge for us."

According to the myth, Basson, who headed the apartheid government's chemical and biological warfare programme in the 1980s, developed the HIV/Aids virus in Pretoria and then sent his agents to seek out South Africans being trained in guerrilla camps in various parts of Africa.

The guerrillas, most of them members of the now-ruling African National Congress which at the time was seeking the violent overthrow of the former white minority government, were surreptitiously injected with what is also known as "Basson's virus."

On their return to South Africa, the guerrillas fell sick and passed on the virus to those around them, the myth goes.

Many believe that Basson, who is currently on trial in the Pretoria High Court on 61 charges, including murder, attempted murder, drug dealing and fraud relating to his activities as head of the chemical warfare programme, is still personally directing the spread of the disease.

Witnesses claim the cardiologist developed special lip balms, roll-on deodorants, shampoos, chocolates, beers and whiskies and used them to distribute poisons like cyanide and diseases like cholera to enemies of the apartheid state.

This, community workers believe, is the origin of the HIV/Aids myth.

According to Wendy Leeb, an Aids researcher for the KwaZulu-Natal legislature, ignorance, too, plays a part.

"If I ask a group of teenagers if they use condoms, many of them would tell me "yes, the first time", but he/she was clean and thus, not capable of harbouring HIV."

Many communities, she said in a recent research paper, maintain a cloak of silence over the disease, refusing to name it.

HIV is referred to variously as "you-know-what", the "amagama amathatu" (the three words), the "new sickness" and the Helen Ivy Vilakazi.

When death occurs, she said, the cause is usually cited as "pneumonia."

Government Aids experts, health workers complain, are doing little to counteract the myths, with much of the national debate currently being over whether HIV is the sole cause of Aids.

President Thabo Mbeki, who scoffs at the view, believes it is being propagated by international pharmaceutical companies bent on making profits out of victims of the disease. - Sapa-AFP