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In Postwar Era, Angolans Now Face Threat Of HIV-AIDS

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 19, 2004; Page A28

HUAMBO, Angola -- Manuel Faustino Gomes, 15, lost both his parents during Angola's long civil war and spent years as a child of the streets, scrambling to survive in this battered city.

Yet on at least one score, Gomes, who has a baby face and a picture of Britney Spears wearing a lacey black bra by his bed, has been fortunate compared to boys in similar circumstances across southern Africa: He has come of age sexually in a country where the HIV infection rate has been relatively low.

Maria Lonor Manuel, 17, holds a condom during a drama at a home for boys in Huambo to educate Angolans about the dangers of HIV and AIDS. (Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)

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Decades of warfare trapped Angola in a kind of medical time warp. Borders were closed. Civilians moved cautiously or not at all. And the disease that has ravaged this continent more than any other largely bypassed Angola.

The estimated HIV infection rate for Angola remains under 10 percent for non-elderly adults, less than half of the rate in neighboring Congo or Zambia, and about one-fourth the rate in Botswana, which despite being among the region's most prosperous and peaceful countries, has an HIV rate estimated at 38 percent.

The danger, humanitarian groups say, is that the situation in Angola is already changing quickly. Two years of peace, combined with the social dislocation, poor health and low education levels created by war, have put the country on the path to reach the infection rates of its neighbors in just a few years.

Adding to the danger are the opening of new trucking lanes and the surge of hundreds of thousands of refugees returning from camps in countries with far higher HIV rates. In addition, soldiers from both sides of the conflict are resettling across Angola, and bringing infection to areas where previously it was rare.

Sudden jumps in infection rates already have been recorded in Luanda, the capital, among prostitutes and pregnant women. A nationwide study due to report results in several months is expected to show an increase among the entire population.

"All of the factors are there," said Laurie Bruns, an expert on HIV in southern Africa for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "It's kind of a risky mix."

The relatively low infection rates have kept Angola from receiving as much in international funding and attention as some neighboring countries. All but two of the 15 "focus countries" for President Bush's $15-billion initiative to combat HIV and AIDS are in Africa, but Angola is not on the list. Even with the current rates, UNICEF estimates that 500,000 Angolans are infected.

In Angola, a country of 14 million people, 70 percent of the population is younger than 25 years old. Young adults and teens are considered among the most vulnerable and the most likely to spread HIV to others.

The rate is especially low in the interior provinces such as Huambo, where the fighting was most intense.

Huambo, a former rebel stronghold, is now surging with new activity. The streets still have deep craters, and many of the buildings are missing roofs or walls lost to the war. But the city has a functioning motorcycle factory, a new hotel and at least one aspiring Internet cafe. There is also a growing freedom of movement, both within the city and beyond its borders as minefields are cleared and repairs are made to highways and bridges.

Gomes lives at Okulissanga, a home for orphaned street children in Huambo. Okulissanga operates on the edge of the city, in an area booming with new housing construction. The boys sleep four to a room in crude barracks beside a roofless, bullet-pocked building that once housed a dairy. Gomes and others walk into the city center to meet girls and other friends.

Many of the boys said they know about condoms and have easy access to them through the nurse at Okulissanga, who hands out nearly 600 a month. Gomes said he always uses one during sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend, but many of his friends do not.

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