HARARE, Zimbabwe – The United States launched a program in Zimbabwe Wednesday to encourage HIV testing, with the U.S. ambassador, local musicians, broadcast personalities and soccer stars taking tests to mark the occasion.
Alexio Kawara, one of the nation's most popular musicians, said Zimbabwean celebrities are leading the U.S. program launched on World AIDS day to dispel fears over knowing one's HIV status.
U.S. Ambassador Charles A. Ray said "wiser older folk" like him are not always listened to, but he hoped the young, popular celebrities should set example that others would follow.
After the tests Wednesday, all the results were kept personal and confidential, a core principle of the program.
The U.S. is the biggest contributor to modern AIDS treatment centers across Zimbabwe that have tested and counseled 2 million people.
Kawara told attendees at a testing center in downtown Harare that AIDS deaths were common in the music industry.
Stardom made "our temptations higher," he said. "Every lady wants to say something to you."
Munyaradzi Chidzonga, 24, an actor and filmmaker who is widely known in Zimbabwe as the runner-up in the last "Big Brother Africa" television reality show, said many of his friends and contemporaries hid their fears over AIDS "behind closed doors."
Health workers also say there is still a stigma attached to HIV infection in some communities, compounded by ignorance over the effectiveness of antiretroviral medication.
"We need to be open," Chidzonga said. "Knowing your status one way or the other gives you the power to control your life. Let's perpetuate this and change the way people think."
Official figures put Zimbabwe's HIV infection rate at about 13 percent of the overall population, but more than 20 percent in the 13-30 age group.
Soccer star Desmond Maringwa of the top-of-the-league Dynamos Football Club has played the game for 15 years since he was a child.
After receiving counseling from social workers about the implications of the test, he and the others waited 15 minutes for the result of the analysis of their blood, taken from a light jab in the thumb.
"Hey, that was a long 15 minutes, but we've got to get the fans to come and do this," he said.