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SOUTH AFRICAN GOVERNMENT DOWNPLAYING AIDS THREAT

Concealing the prevalence of AIDS in South Africa will not make the disease any less deadly.

Nevertheless, that nation's government is delaying the release of a report on the prevalence of AIDS within its borders. A new report by the autonomous but government-funded Medical Research Council predicts that, without major changes in public policy and personal behavior among South Africans, the disease could kill up to 7 million people there by 2010 and reduce the average life expectancy from 54 to 41.

When South African officials got wind of those findings, they sought a delay in the report's release until December, when a government statistical agency is expected to finish a rosier evaluation of the problem. Fortunately, Medical Research Council scientists leaked key parts of the report to the media.

In the past, government officials have questioned whether HIV really causes AIDS. Even after winning a legal battle over access to life-saving drugs, the government has shown little interest in distributing them to infected citizens.

And now this. As the world's attention has turned to terrorism, governments that endanger the health of their own people won't necessarily get the international condemnation they deserve. But regardless of the other dangers that exist in the world, AIDS is a grave threat to South Africa's future. The government must mot pretend otherwise.

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