CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — Church bells tolled and workers put down their tools on Monday as South Africa observed a minute of silence for AIDS victims and ended a decade of denial about the epidemic.
As ceremonies marked World AIDS Day around the world, the top U.N. official dealing with the disease, Peter Piot, joined South African political leaders and hundreds of activists to show his support for a government that has broken 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 at a rally in the coastal city of Durban in remembrance of the victims.
Trade unions, too, joined the observances.
"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.
An estimated 33 million people worldwide have the AIDS virus, the vast majority of them in Africa. But no country is spared. In a rare government disclosure, Iran said Monday that it has registered more than 18,000 HIV-positive citizens and estimated the true number of infected to be as high as 100,000.
China — which for years also covered up the disease — vowed to do more to tackle the stigma. The government promised to strengthen education about AIDS prevention, increase condom distribution and do more to reach high-risk groups. An estimated 700,000 Chinese have the virus.
The rate of HIV infection in Europe almost doubled between 2000 and 2007, reaching the highest level ever recorded in Europe, the health agencies of the U.N. and European Union said in a jointly issued report. The annual rate of newly diagnosed cases of HIV infection rose to 75 per million people in 2007 from 39 per million in 2000.
South Africa has an estimated 5.5 million people living with the HIV virus _ the highest total of any country. About 1,000 South Africans die each day of the disease and complications like tuberculosis. Even more become infected because prevention messages have not worked.