CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) -- Church bells tolled, workers put down their tools and court proceedings stopped Monday as South Africa marked a minute of silence for AIDS victims and ended a decade of denial about the epidemic.
Activists hold balloons, reading: "Protecting Oneself Is Also Getting Infromed," during a rally in Abidjan, Ivory Coast on Monday.
Peter Piot, the top U.N. official dealing with the disease, joined political leaders and hundreds of AIDS activists at a rally in the coastal city of Durban to show his support for a government that has made a break with the discredited AIDS policies of former President Thabo Mbeki.
"We are the first to admit that a lot still needs to be done," said Baleka Mbete, the deputy president, as she lit a candle in remembrance of the victims.
South Africa has an estimated 5.5 million people living with the HIV virus -- the highest total of any country in the world and more than one-sixth of the global total. About 1,000 South Africans die each day of the disease and complications like tuberculosis. Even more become infected because prevention messages haven't worked.
And yet for years, Mbeki's government downplayed the extent of the crisis. Mbeki himself doubted the link between HIV and AIDS. His health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang openly mistrusted conventional AIDS drugs and instead promoted the value of lemons, garlic, beetroot and the African potato. Watch as reality TV star describes living with HIV »
Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health last month calculated that government delays in introducing AIDS drugs between 2000 and 2005 cost more than 330,000 lives in South Africa. The study said that an additional 35,000 babies were born with HIV during the same period because authorities were reluctant to roll out mother-to-child prevention programs.
"We have to mourn the lives of those we have not saved," said Barbara Hogan, the health minister who replaced Tshabalala-Msimang after Mbeki was ousted in October. She cited the example of an 8-year-old boy battling both AIDS-related TB and meningitis who was on a waiting list for drugs when he died.
"We could have saved his life," Hogan said. She promised to improve HIV treatment and prevention programs, and to increase the supply of drugs to HIV positive women to stop them from passing the virus on to their unborn children.
South Africa has the biggest program for AIDS drugs in the world. And yet, about half the 800,000 people who need drugs are not receiving them. Experts estimate that within five years, about 5.5 million people with HIV will need medication to prevent their immune systems from worsening.
The government wants to halve new infections by 2011 and ensure that 80 percent of people with the disease get treatment and care.
But it faces a mammoth task. The Global Fund on AIDS, TB and Malaria has rejected a South African request for nearly $92 million over the next two years for AIDS projects and $68 million for TB prevention and treatment. AIDS campaigners blamed the former health minister for failing to respect the fund's strict operating rules.
The Durban ceremony marked an unprecedented show of unity between government, big business, trade unions and activists. In the past, activists and doctors had to resort to the courts to force government to provide AIDS drugs.
Church bells rang for a minute's silence at noon, and all banks agreed to cease business for that time. Murder trials were briefly interrupted. Trade union and business chiefs said they would have a 30-minute work stoppage to talk to their employees and encourage them to be tested -- which still remains largely taboo among men. Cell phone services sent text messages to their teenage subscribers.
"With the young and working age dying in droves, South Africa's death statistics resemble those of a country in a terrible war," the Confederation of South African Trade Unions said.