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South Africa Steps Up Fight Against AIDS

Critics blame South Africa's high HIV infection rates on government inaction and mixed messages. Recently, however, the deputy president of the country has called for intensification of the fight against AIDS. Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports from Johannesburg.

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  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, NewsHour Special Correspondent:

    Overcrowded waiting rooms in an AIDS clinic at Helen Joseph Hospital, a public facility in Johannesburg, catering to the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the sick.

    Men, women, old and young, with some 5.5 million people infected, about 18 percent of the population, South Africa leads the world in infection rates. Here AIDS patients who've been close to death are saved only by the anti-retroviral drugs the government — under pressure — began providing free at public clinics three years ago.

    Half a million need them; only half are getting them. And even though this is a light day, there isn't an empty seat in the place. Some have waited hours to be seen, some days.

  • SISTER SUE ROBERTS, Helen Joseph Hospital:

    We'll get her right if we can put her onto the medicine.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    Nursing sister Sue Roberts is in charge.

  • SISTER SUE ROBERTS:

    Your number is number 130, somewhere up there.

  • CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:

    Sister Sue has seen the worst of times, times, she said, that led to the crunch in her clinic. Here and around the country, some 60 percent of patients in pediatric and adult medical wards are HIV-related cases.

    Sister Sue remembers when the president of this country, Thabo Mbeki, questioned the link between HIV and AIDS in 2000, though in recent years he's remained silent on the issue, and when the health minister derided anti-retrovirals as "toxic." Critics call her Doctor Beetroot because she offered as an alternative traditional remedies, like the African potato, beetroot, and garlic.

  • SISTER SUE ROBERTS:

    The mixed messages have been a bit of a problem for the patients, because the patients don't understand. And if they got sick because they were sometimes in denial about the HIV and sometimes, you know, worried about the treatment, because they saw so much negative publicity about the treatment.