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Published: Sunday, 12/6/2009

Seeing the light on AIDS

WHEN it came to the AIDS virus, there was a time when South African President Jacob Zuma was the equivalent of a global-warming denier. He once insisted that HIV, which infects 1 in 10 South Africans, could be prevented with a shower.

As ignorant as that sounds, Mr. Zuma might as well have been the chief of surgery at the Cleveland Clinic compared to his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. Mr. Mbeki's health minister promoted garlic and beet treatments over AIDS drugs. According to a Harvard study, 300,000 deaths resulted from their refusal to deal with the reality of HIV in South Africa.

With 5.7 million South Africans infected by the virus, no other nation is steeped in as much misinformation about its causes and treatments.

Fortunately, President Zuma has finally seen the light. Last Tuesday, on World AIDS Day, he announced an ambitious an unprecedented plan to expand treatment for HIV-positive babies and pregnant women. This includes the treatment of all children under a year old.

Comparing the fight against AIDS to the struggle against apartheid, Mr. Zuma has even appointed a health minister who believes in science. This is a stunning repudiation of what he once believed. It is also a welcome gesture to the world about South Africa's commitment to battling HIV. It has been too long in coming.

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