News24, 01 December 2002, Orphanage buries babies' ashes on World Aids Day

Johannesburg - South Africa commemorated World Aids Day on Sunday with a Johannesburg-based orphanage burying the ashes of 17 babies who died of Aids-related illnesses and hundreds of activists marching through the city's streets.

"Today's ceremony highlights the plight of babies with Aids, as well as AIds orphans," said Sister Stella Dubazana, who led the sombre burial service at a cemetery north of the city centre.

"These were babies who were orphaned by Aids, or whose relatives have abandoned them because they had the disease," she said.

High infection rate

South Africa has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, with five million of its 46 million citizens carrying the virus, and 360 000 deaths in 2001.

UN figures show that more than 20% of South African adults are infected while 660 000 children have been orphaned as a result of Aids.

Stigma

Although strides have been made in Aids education in the last few years, the stigma attached to the virus is among the largest remaining problems, Dubazana said.

"This is one of the things we have to fight. That's why we get babies abandoned on our own doorstep," said Dubazana as she stepped away from the wall where the ashes of the babies, contained in boxes wrapped with gold paper, were placed behind inscriptions of their names.

The oldest child to be cremated, Mahlatse Gumede, was three; the youngest, Mark Kaheka, 29 days.

Dubazana said the Cotlands Aids Hospice, an orphanage that looked after about 60 babies with Aids, had seen an increase in Aids deaths since last year.

"Last year we buried 45 babies. This year it's up to 60," she said.

March

Elsewhere in the city, about 500 Aids activists marched to get their message across.

"The purpose of the march is once again to highlight the issue of HIV, and also the march is led by people who are openly living with HIV," Mark Heywood, spokesperson for Aids lobby group Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), said.

"We call on more people to be open about the fact that they have HIV and Aids," he said.

He said the TAC was holding the march a day after an important agreement between government, labour, business and communities living with the disease that could lead to the provision of antiretrovirals to all Aids patients next year.

Nedlac

The deal, reached through South Africa's arbitration body, the National Economic, Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), on Saturday, was an all-encompassing agreement that dealt with a range of issues including prevention programmes, access to medication and goals for reducing HIV/Aids in South Africa.

It included an understanding that "no person should be sent away from hospital or a health care institution or not treated because of their HIV status."

The agreement set a target of reducing by one-fifth the number of babies infected with HIV by 2005.

"This agreement was reached just a day ago. Once being implemented, it will begin to change the impact in the fight against Aids," Heywood said.

The TAC in the past few years challenged the state's refusal to provide anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive pregnant women, to prevent mother-to-child transmission.

The High Court ruled in December last year that treatment should be made available in state hospitals, but the government lodged appeals.

In July, the Constitutional Court, denied it leave to appeal against the ruling. - Sapa-AFP