CAPE TOWN , South Africa– Sen. Barack Obama, in a dramatic gesture aimed at African men who won’t confront the dangers of a deadly disease, said he will publicly take an HIV test in the village where his Kenyan father once lived.
Also on Monday, he faulted the South African government as being in “denial” for advocating nutritional treatments over modern medical alternatives.
In a light-hearted encounter in an otherwise serious day, Obama met with former Anglican Archbishop and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, who teased Obama about his political future.
“You are going to be a very credible presidential candidate,” Tutu said.
‘Changes in behavior’
Obama, speaking to a group of militant AIDS activists, all HIV-infected patients, delivered the surprise pronouncement on the second day of his African tour.
Obama hopes to use the enormous celebrity he has in Kenya — where he will be greeted as a native son — to demonstrate to men that there is no stigma to testing for HIV.
“One of the things I will be doing in Kenya is probably getting an AIDS test myself in front of the camera,” Obama said in the headquarters of the group TAC, or Treatment Action Campaign.
“There is no stigma in using condoms in the United States,” he declared in TAC’s shabby offices in a shantytown outside of Cape Town in Khayelitsha Township.
“Leaders, I think, have a responsibility to speak honestly and clearly about these issues,” Obama said. “. . . So, a lot of times, I think leading by example could be very helpful, and that is something I would like to do.”
Obama does not expect any startling results from the tests. Later, when asked, he said he had been tested for HIV as part of getting a life insurance policy.
The senator’s camp estimated thousands of Kenyan men could be expected to follow the senator’s example to get tested for HIV.
Such an event could be a watershed moment in how African men deal with the contraction and treatment of AIDS.
Obama said it was time for men to take responsibility for their behavior.
“There has to be changes in behavior, particularly among men, when it comes to unsafe sex. That everybody needs to be tested, that the strategy of anti-viral drugs is important.”
Swipe at S. African official
That comment is a reference to the latest uproar over a top South African official’s public embrace of vegetables for treatment of AIDS instead of a group of medicines now routinely given to AIDS patients.
Health Minister Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was castigated for being on the “lunatic fringe” for embracing beetroot, lemon, garlic and African potato as a more effective cure for AIDS patients.
Alluding to that, Obama said “there should not be a contradiction or conflict between traditional values and modern science.”
Obama aides got the idea for his public HIV test from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which wanted Obama to do more than just tour a CDC project near the Kenyan town where his father grew up and is buried.
The test should take place on Saturday, the same day he will visit his grandmother and other family members.
Obama’s move ‘an example’
One of the most famous AIDS activists in South Africa, Zackie Achmat, who contracted the virus through unprotected sex, praised the decision because it would encourage other people.
Mitch Besser, a New Jersey-born physician who founded a program that focuses on mothers and children to prevent and treat HIV, thought that there was significance in the Obama move because “it will serve as an example to men around the world that HIV testing is not in the province of women alone and should not be relegated to those who are pregnant. But it is the responsibility of all who are sexually active.”
Obama’s decision to, in effect, slap the government of South African President Thabo Mbeki came a day before he hoped to meet with him in the South African administrative capital of Pretoria, which is near Johannesburg.
It is now seen as a long shot that Obama gets that appointment.
Copyright 2006, Digital Chicago Inc.