Mexico City — Former Botswana president Festus Mogae has launched a new initiative that will try to use the energy and experience of a group of renowned and forthright African leaders to persuade their peers on the continent to inject fresh energy into their efforts to combat AIDS.
Africa is the region hardest hit by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, with countries south of the Sahara home to 22-million people with the disease, two-thirds of the world's total.
"Despite our best efforts and achievements, the transmission of HIV continues at high rates in southern Africa," he told reporters at the 17th International AIDS Conference.
The region is home to 35% of the people with HIV, and almost a third of all new infections and AIDS deaths last year.
"We need to innovate. Our current practices are dated," Mogae said.
"We have to change our tactics, and think out of the box."
While not discounting the importance of treatment for people already infected with HIV, "prevention should be priority number one, priority number two and priority number three," said Mogae.
His "Champions for an HIV free generation" group includes the former presidents of Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania; Joaquim Chissano, Kenneth Kaunda, and Benjamin Mkapa respectively.
It also includes Kenyan national AIDS c ontrol c ouncil chairman Prof Miriam Were, and South Africans Archbishop Desmond Tutu and appeal court judge Edwin Cameron.
"Africa has lacked visible leadership (on HIV/AIDS). We hope this will change with the Champions initiative," said Cameron.
He said other African leaders had much to learn from Mogae, who in 2001 took the bold and controversial step of announcing that his government would provide free treatment to all HIV patients in need, and now boasts 95% coverage.
Botswana was also the first country to introduce routine HIV testing, with patients given the opportunity to decline the test.
At that time, "my own country (SA) was mired in the gruesome nightmare of (President Thabo) Mbeki's AIDS denialism", and was still debating whether to provide treatment, said Cameron.
Mogae's initiative has been endorsed by the world's most influential HIV/AIDS organisations, including UNAIDS; the World Bank; the US president's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; and the World Health Organisation.
Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said she supported the project.
"Every little bit helps. Festus Mogae knows how the systems work, and understands the African Union and Southern African Development Community.
"I'm sure it's a well-thought-through initiative," she said.
Earlier in the week, University of Cape Town economist Nicoli Natrass presented an analysis of how different countries had responded to their HIV/AIDS epidemics and concluded that leadership in SA, Uruguay and Trinidad and Tobago was severely lacking as these nations had the resources and capacity to do more.
Her work also showed that the "poster children" of AIDS leadership, such as Brazil and Uganda, had performed consistently better than SA given their level of development.
Natrass used the statistical modelling technique, regression analysis, to assess 82 countries' provision of treatment for HIV .