At World Cup, South African AIDS activists hope to spread word of prevention

The big day draws closer, as South Africans gather to show their support for their beloved Bafana Bafana in Cape Town city center.
The big day draws closer, as South Africans gather to show their support for their beloved Bafana Bafana in Cape Town city center. (Schalk Van Zuydam/associated Press)
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By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2010

JOHANNESBURG -- Slathered in face paint, toting samba drums and waving national flags, the world's most ardent soccer fans are streaming into South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. And they're being met by a host of reminders not to forget the tournament's most essential accessory: a condom.

South Africa has the world's highest incidence of HIV/AIDS, with 5.7 million of its 49.1 million residents afflicted, roughly 12 percent of the population. In some regions, one in five adults is HIV-positive.

The nation's health advocates have long eyed the advent of the world's biggest sporting event as an opportunity to draw global attention to the crisis, stress the importance of HIV testing and promote safe-sex practices -- not just among the 300,000 visitors who aren't necessarily known for prudent behavior amid their soccer-crazed and often alcohol-fueled euphoria, but among their own residents, as well.

But as Friday's kickoff approaches, those at the forefront of the campaign say FIFA, soccer's world governing body, has been half-hearted in linking South Africa's most pressing health issue to its grandest event -- a charge FIFA officials deny.

"What I hoped I would see at the World Cup would be very visible messaging," said Mark Heywood, deputy chairman of the South African National AIDS Council. "Obviously you don't want to drown out the World Cup; you don't have to spoil the party. None of us is suggesting that you have to have explicit safe-sex advertising on television being beamed around the globe. We're simply suggesting: 'Know your HIV status. Practice safe sex.' "

Heywood's comments followed a three-day duel of news releases that started Saturday, when a consortium of 10 South African HIV/AIDS groups accused FIFA of blocking plans to distribute condoms and health information outside its 10 World Cup venues and at officially designated "Fan Parks," where supporters will gather to watch matches on giant screens.

The statement also noted, by way of contrast, that FIFA allowed beer advertising at the World Cup (Budweiser is among FIFA's corporate sponsors).

On Monday, FIFA denied any effort to quash condom distribution at its World Cup venues. Moreover, the sport's governing body commended the government's HIV/AIDS initiatives and promised to broadcast HIV messages and ads for Durex-brand condoms as part of its match-day "infotainment."

AIDS groups countered Tuesday, issuing a statement reiterating their concerns and citing "inconsistencies" in FIFA's reply. Why, for example, did FIFA intend to air ads only for Durex condoms, a brand that is too costly for many South Africans, rather than more affordable brands or free condoms.

Amid the kerfuffle, World Cup host cities have forged ahead with health initiatives that have been months in the making by tourist boards, chambers of commerce and various nonprofit groups.

In the seaside playground of Cape Town, South Africa's premier tourist destination, guests at some 30 hotels will be given free condoms specially packaged for the World Cup with the slogan, "Play It Safe in Cape Town."

In Johannesburg, the city council is distributing 15-page health and safety brochures, each with a condom attached, that include tips about everything from credit card theft to prostitution.

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