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Zimbabwe Lawmakers Volunteer for Public HIV Testing, Circumcision

Their role in fighting the spread of HIV/Aids has largely been confined to policy formulation over the years - but now they are taking a whole new different approach.

Some 61 Zimbabwean lawmakers have volunteered to undergo public HIV testing and counseling on June 22, aiming to ratchet up public awareness and deflate the stigma that comes with the Aids epidemic.

Of the total volunteers, 28 male parliamentarians will receive circumcision, a method largely practiced in Zimbabwe nowadays after research proved it significantly reduces the odds of men contracting the virus that causes the deadly disease during sexual intercourse.

“We want to inspire the people that we represent,” said lawmaker Blessing Chebundo, chairman of the Zimbabwe Parliamentarians Against HIV/Aids, an organization formed by volunteering Members of Parliament in March to spearhead the fight against HIV.

Though the HIV testing will be conducted in a public arena, the lawmakers will however, not be obliged to publicize their results, Chebundo revealed.

In 2004, the Movement for Democratic Change politician led a handful of legislators for similar tests. Chebundo and his colleagues were later joined by three traditional chiefs and a few government ministers.

While members of the public and Aids advocates applaud the move by the lawmakers, they say not revealing their HIV results waters down the effect of their otherwise noble campaign.

One such skeptic is Sipho Mahlangu, Zimbabwe National Network of People Living with HIV/Aids coordinator for Matabeleland North region.

“It’s a welcome development,” said Mahlangu, “but we expect one or two, or all of them to come out in the open and share their results. This will be the basis of their advocacy to create greater awareness.”

But Chebundo sees it differently. “The point is never to publicize one’s results," he said. "The point is for people to be able to know their status and act responsibly. And when the nation as a whole knows the level of infection, we are then able to make proper arrangements in terms of prevention.”

President Robert Mugabe is one person certain to be impressed by the lawmakers’ action. He has previously called out top government officials saying he personally knew a number of them who were taking antiretroviral drugs but were involved in promiscuous behavior.

Zimbabwe has registered a steady decline in HIV prevalence over the past ten years or so, thanks to heightened public awareness and fear of infection, according to a survey published in February last year by the U.S. journal, PLoS Medicine.

Between 1997 and 2009, the prevalence rate fell from an all-time high of 29 percent to just about 13 percent. The number of new annual infections also dropped markedly.

Besides the factors cited by the U.S journal, experts say increased condom use and steady drug supplies by donor agencies have also played a critical role in subduing the spread of HIV.

About 1,2 million Zimbabweans live with HIV, according to 2009 United Nations statistics.