World AIDS day: Why do headstones outnumber headlines?

World AIDS Day is December 1. Dean Owen, senior adviser for communications at World Vision International, shares his experience with how AIDS has affected a community in South Africa -- and how this pandemic has shaped humanity since its discovery in the 1980s.

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Stepping out of the car, I am overwhelmed by the sight of the cemetery, its symbolism, and its sadness. I stop, look away, take a deep breath, and then step forward.

Before this day, AIDS was represented by the living: an elderly woman lighting candles and wailing in agony outside a church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; a boy in a Mumbai slum clutching faded photographs of his dead parents; prostitutes soliciting prospective clients on a rainy night in Bangkok.

Today, the pandemic is represented in poignant silence near Bloemfontein, South Africa.

The tombstones, packed together over several acres, reveal more than a person’s name and the years he or she lived. Each one reflects the individual’s wealth and standing in the community of Botshabelo:

The thin sheet of black steel barely attached by one rusted bolt to a short metal post, with name and dates hand-scrawled in white paint.

The marble monument, five feet tall, extolling the deceased’s virtues as a husband, father, brother -- “protected” by the bent remnant of a cast-iron bed frame.

The eight-inch weathered board propped in front of a small mound, any references to the grave site’s occupant faded long ago.

(Photo: Eugene Lee/World Vision)

Many inscriptions point to a common fact: Death came between the ages of 25 and 45, likely from AIDS. Here, and in many other South African communities, the disease still carries a pervasive stigma. Men deny they are unfaithful; women know their HIV status, but they are reluctant to disclose it.

Reading those inscriptions, my thoughts return to the wood and corrugated metal homes I visited during my reporting assignment. Here, 30 percent of the children -- probably more -- live with relatives or family friends, because their parents are buried here. Average life expectancy in this region is 52 years, according to the United Nations.

I see graves littered with shards of broken ceramic cups and beer or wine bottles -- remembrances of those who pay their respects, toast the dead with a favorite beverage, and bequeath these mementos.

(Photo: Eugene Lee/World Vision)

Nowhere in this sprawling black township of 210,000 is more solemn. Burial service providers estimate there are more than 2,000 graves, and nearly 60 people are buried each weekend.

At the cemetery, AIDS is not a notation in a patient’s file. Their symptoms are not mitigated by regimens of anti-retroviral medications. There are no bedroom arguments here between men and women over who infected whom.

As I walk among the graves, reflecting and praying, I am reminded that 30 years ago, the disease created more headlines than headstones.

Today, it is just the opposite.

World Vision works in communities affected by AIDS around the world, providing care for those who live with the disease and taking steps to prevent transmission to children whose mothers are HIV-positive.

Read this story about one such mother in Zambia who was able to give birth to a healthy baby, thanks to World Vision's assistance at the local clinic.

In recognition of World AIDS Day, join us in our efforts to bring hope and healing to those impacted by this global humanitarian emergency:

Make a one-time donation to help us prevent the spread of HIV from mothers to children. Your gift will help provide HIV testing, prenatal and postnatal care, counseling for HIV-positive mothers, HIV awareness programs, and support for local clinics in places where HIV still threatens lives.

You can also sponsor a child in a community affected by HIV and AIDS. Your love and commitment to a boy or girl in need will help deliver basics like medical care, nutritious food, clean water, and education — the foundations of a healthy, hopeful future.


    This is terrible news! It's really overwhelming to see that headstones outnumbered headlines, it just means that death is prominent than important news. I just hope that AIDS will not be the number 1 culprit for nonsense death.

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