Image: Senegalese students
Rebecca Blackwell  /  AP
Senegalese students volunteer to answer questions about AIDS prevention and transmission in the town of Fatick, Senegal, on Dec. 1.
updated 12/1/2005 3:07:48 PM ET 2005-12-01T20:07:48

Schoolchildren in Senegal pledged to abstain from sex and village women in India cast off a veil of shame about their HIV status as World AIDS Day was marked Thursday around the globe.

“Our teacher told us that AIDS is a very dangerous disease,” said 13-year-old Aissatou Niang, wearing a green Muslim headscarf. “Only abstinence can save us,” she said as her schoolmates giggled nearby.

Such frank talk among African children is key, say anti-AIDS campaigners who emphasize science can help combat the disease, but ignorance or taboos surrounding its transmission means AIDS is hard to halt — and treat.

About 40 million people worldwide are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Some 3 million of them are expected to die of AIDS this year. Africa, with only 10 percent of the world’s population, suffers over half of its HIV infections.

Heavily Muslim Senegal is a relative bright spot on the continent, with only about 1 percent of the population infected. On Thursday, dozens of children packed a schoolhouse in the central town of Fatick to learn more about the disease.

“I’ve decided to wait until I’m 19 to have a relationship,” said one of the students, Awa Sarr. “When I go back home I’ll tell my brothers and sisters about AIDS. That’s why we’re here.”

In India, some 70 HIV-infected women stepped out of the shadows during a rally in Golaghat, a town in eastern Assam state, to acknowledge they are living with AIDS and should not be shunned.

“I’m happy many women have paid heed to our call and have openly admitted to their HIV-positive status,” said Jahnabi Goswami, 28. “Men with the disease need to follow suit.”

An estimated 5.1 million people are living with HIV in India — the most in any single country except South Africa. Nigeria, Africa’s most-populous nation, is third.

South African Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka urged her countrymen Thursday to show their concern about AIDS throughout the year.

“Whatever good we do today, let us repeat it tomorrow, next week and in the coming months as we look forward to the years ahead,” she said.

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South Africa’s government has been accused of responding sluggishly to the crisis. Life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs only became available through the public health system last year in South Africa.

In a speech in Washington, President Bush pledged to expand the AIDS prevention programs the United States funds in Africa and elsewhere around the world that emphasize abstinence as well as condom use.

Critics have said the programs stress abstinence at the expense of condom use, a dangerously unrealistic approach.

From the far reaches of the globe, people showed solidarity with the world’s AIDS sufferers.

Thousands of candles were to illuminate the Swedish winter gloom, with anti-AIDS vigils planned for the capital, Stockholm, and a southern city, Malmo.

The British government marked World AIDS Day by contributing $48 million to the global fight against the disease.

Estonia’s National Institute for Health Development campaigned Thursday for increased tolerance of HIV-infected persons. With over 5,000 diagnosed cases, Estonia has among the highest number of HIV infections in Europe.

In southern Africa, the region hardest hit by AIDS, people lined up to be tested in tents set up outside a new pediatric AIDS center on the outskirts of the capital of the tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho — part of a government program to offer free HIV testing and counseling to all households by the end of 2007.

“I urge all Basotho to know their status so that they can be able to manage their lives and receive treatment in the case of those affected,” said Lesotho’s King Letsie III.

But in Africa’s last absolute monarchy, Swaziland, AIDS events were canceled by royal decree because they clashed with a traditional ceremony. More than 38 percent of adults in the country are infected with HIV — the highest infection rate in the world.

Only a few dozen joined a procession in Nigeria’s biggest city, Lagos.

“Since I believe I don’t have it, I don’t see why I should march,” said Mufu Adebajo, a 22-year-old craftsman watching from his roadside stand. “Otherwise, people will think I have it.”

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