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UK billionaire helps AIDS fight in safari land

Written by: Staff

ULUSABA, South Africa, Nov 23: Wealthy tourists jetting into South Africa to stay at luxury safari lodges pay top dollar for the illusion of danger, epitomised by a trumpeting elephant or a lion moving in for a kill.

But lodge workers and the impoverished surrounding communities face a threat far more deadly than the leopards and lions that thrill the visitors: South Africa's HIV/AIDS epidemic, which is among the worst in the world.

British entrepreneur Richard Branson knows the cost of AIDS first hand. His private Ulusaba game reserve has seen a number of employees die from the disease, which has infected an estimated 25-30 per cent of the residents in nearby communities.

Now Branson and a number of nearby game lodges, as well as the US government, are doing something about it -- a first for the industry in South Africa.

''Not only should the government feel guilty about it, but we as a company should feel guilty,'' Branson said recently at the opening of a new community clinic funded in part by his charity Virgin Unite.

''There are 100,000 people in this region, and 25,000 to 30,000 of them will die unless they get anti-retroviral drugs.'' The idea of building a clinic was inspired by the case of Donald Makhubele, an Ulusaba worker, poet and songwriter who detailed his battle against HIV/AIDS in a series of essays.

''This is not a disease but it is a war that is in Africa, aiming to destroy our continent,'' Makhubele wrote shortly before his death. ''I'm pleading to everyone who can read this message to consider it and come out with something to help the nation.'' OUT OF SIGHT Branson's Ulusaba is typical of South Africa's top end safari lodges, which trade on a glamorous ''Out of Africa'' image at odds with the realities of life in poor townships just beyond the game park fencing.

Often paying close to 1,000 dollars per night, guests enter a storybook Africa of regal animals, gourmet cuisine and flawless service, where a day can begin with a sighting of a herd of elephants and end with an aromatherapy massage.

Residents of the area are not so lucky.

Ignored as a nominally independent black ''homeland'' under white apartheid rule, the Agincourt region in Mpumalanga province is close to the famous Kruger National Park and remains one of the country's poorest regions.

Unemployment is estimated at up to 50 per cent, most residents have no access to running water and existing medical facilities are often remote from the poorest areas. Despite the ravages of HIV/AIDS, local people continue to shy away from confronting the disease -- a sign, activists say, of its stigma and the difficulty in accessing treatment.

''People here sometimes don't seem to be too aware of it, they don't like to talk about it,'' said Nonhlanhla Ndlovu, a 22-year-old member of a youth group that stages performances in an effort to raise awareness of the disease.

''I can't say the community is very supportive. When people think of AIDS, they think of fear.'' MODEL TREATMENT CENTRE Branson's idea, developed with game rangers and community workers, was to work with major donors and the local community to develop a battle plan against the disease.

The result, unveiled recently at a ceremony attended by the US and British ambassadors, is the region's first ''Autonomous Treatment Centre'' aimed at providing testing, counselling and HIV drugs to as many as 75,000 people.

Wealthy visitors to Ulusaba are encouraged to donate what they can to the project.

''Eighty per cent of South Africans are negative, and we have to work damn hard to keep it that way,'' said Dr Hugo Tempelman, a doctor who worked with Branson's team to develop the clinic.

The heart of the clinic -- and the element which Branson and others hope may be replicated in other rural regions -- is the ''Togatainer'': a fully transportable, self-contained laboratory put in a shipping container.

Equipped with its own generator, the mobile laboratory built by South Africa's Toga Molecular Biology Laboratories, brings key elements of HIV care, including blood testing and monitoring of viral loads, within reach of remote communities.

''It's plug-and-play. Presto, you immediately have local capacity to treat patients and most importantly to monitor their progress,'' Tempelman said.

There are now two Togatainer labs in operation in South Africa, and officials hope more will be rolled out in a country still desperately short of hospitals and clinics.

The 6.8 million dollars Agincourt health centre, also funded by the US government's AIDS programme and mining giant Anglo Coal, marks a step toward new cooperation between the game lodges and the communities that serve them, industry officials say.

''HIV and AIDS pose a serious threat to many tourism and hospitality businesses,'' said Jennifer Seif, executive director of Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa, an industry body. ''To mitigate against the impacts of HIV and AIDS, the industry must work together, pool resources and share lessons learnt.'' Sean Ingles of the Singita game lodge said many lodges were waking up to the potential, and despair, of local communities.

''We are finding there is support from the people who visit the lodges, especially if they know the local people,'' Ingles said.


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