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South Africa Looks to Set New Course in HIV/AIDS Fight

South Africa's new health minister is promoting testing, treatment and frank dialogue about HIV. But many challenges lie ahead in managing the epidemic, as Ray Suarez reports in the first of his three-part series of reports from South Africa.

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  • RAY SUAREZ:

    It's Saturday morning at Avalon Cemetery in Soweto, time for a week's worth of funerals.

    The enormous ghetto called Soweto was created by the legal segregation of South Africa's apartheid years. It's far bigger than most American cities, so the normal cycles of life and death would bring mourners here, but not this many, not the endless parade of living for the dead, not the graves dug in row after row and filled in a morning's work, not the number of headstones marking the deaths of hundreds in their 20s and 30s.

    Africa has been fighting AIDS for decades, but the scale of HIV infection and death from AIDS is different in South Africa. There are some 7.5 million HIV-positive people here, 1 out of every 6 people in the country, 1 out of every 4 working age.

    AIDS is pushing down life expectancy rates in South Africa below 50 years and filling whole sections of this cemetery with the graves of children.

    While the dying goes on at a breathtaking pace and this country continues to cope with the staggering losses in its most productive generation, there is at long last some good news, some hope in South Africa's struggle against HIV and AIDS.

    Three-quarters of a million South Africans are now living with HIV instead of dying of AIDS because the country has begun distributing life-saving antiretroviral drugs, or ARVs.

    For years, South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, and his health minister questioned whether HIV causes AIDS and wouldn't make antiretroviral treatment available. His health minister, Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, recommended herbal remedies, earning her the sarcastic nickname "Dr. Beet Root."

    Last fall, a scathing study by Harvard University blamed Mbeki for AIDS deaths of over 300,000 South Africans.