In parts of Africa, entrepreneurs at roadside stands sell baby coffins to hold the youngest victims of AIDS. So many people are dying from the disease that the average life expectancy in some countries is now below 33 years. Yet AIDS remains shrouded in secrecy, rarely listed as a cause of death in obituaries or mentioned publicly when a loved one is sick.
Enter Nelson Mandela, the former South African president who remains its spiritual and emotional leader. Three years ago, Mr. Mandela began a campaign to increase AIDS awareness and openness. Last week, he unfortunately had the opportunity to practice what he preached.
Hours after his son, Makgatho L. Mandela, 54, passed away in a Johannesburg hospital, he held a press conference announcing that AIDS was the cause of death. Rather than grieve in silence, Mr. Mandela saw his son's death as a way to strike a blow against the insidious killer.
"Let us give publicity to HIV/AIDS and not hide it," he said, "because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness like TB, like cancer, is always to come out and say somebody has died because of HIV/AIDS and people will stop regarding it as something extraordinary."
Through apathy, or stigma, or ignorance, the AIDS epidemic in Africa has not gotten the worldwide attention it merits. Yet the World Health Organization figures 8,000 people die from AIDS in Africa every day - more deaths every three weeks than the current death toll from the Asian tsunami.
If there is to be any hope of progress on AIDS, the disease needs to be seen worldwide as one that affects everyone - not just the poor and uneducated, and not just homosexuals.
Nelson Mandela isn't the first African leader to acknowledge a personal tragedy from AIDS. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of South Africa's Inkatha Freedom Party, did the same last year following the deaths of his own son and daughter.
Their openness in the face of personal tragedy should be an inspiration to us all.