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Subject: Botswana beauty pageant crowns Miss HIV

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Date Posted: 02/27/05 5:26:07am

February 27, 2005, 09:45

A Botswana beauty pageant crowned 32-year-old Cynthia Leshomo "Miss HIV" today in a contest aimed at fighting the stigma of the killer disease that has infected more than a third of the population. The 12 contestants - aged 21 to 35 and coached by Miss Botswana 2004 - strutted on a catwalk in front of almost 500 people at an exclusive hotel resort in the capital Gaborone. They said they wanted to show there was life after an HIV diagnosis.

"This beauty pageant is a beauty pageant but it is beauty with a purpose," said Leshomo as friends and wellwishers thronged the stage following her win in the early hours of the morning. "We should pull everybody out of that fear of stigmatism." Botswana has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, but has used its diamond wealth to provide life-prolonging anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs.

However, campaigners say many sufferers are unwilling to have tests, put themselves forward for treatment or talk about the disease. Many of the contestants in the pageant, now in its third year, are voluntary counsellors or health workers. As well as sashaying up and down the catwalk, they answered questions on their attitudes to Aids and stigmatism.

"Look at me. I'm attractive. I'm HIV positive. What's the big deal?" contestant Anna Ratotsisi told the crowd. But locals say many will still refuse to share cooking utensils or living space with HIV-infected people for fear of contracting the disease.

Leshomo, who works as an Aids counsellor, will receive a scholarship, free beauty treatment and a monthly allowance after winning the contest. She will also travel around the sparsely-populated country trying to educate young people about the disease, which President Festus Mogae says threatens Botswana with "annihilation".

Around 37% of the population is infected, according to UN figures. Part of the aim of the pageant - funded by a local charity backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and drug giant Merck as well as by major local investors such as mineral giant De Beers and British bank Barclays - was to show that Aids drugs work. "That is at the heart of it," Brad Ryder, spokesman for the African Comprehensive HIV/Aids Partnership, said. "Botswana was the first country in Africa to provide publicly funded ARVs. People in Washington and Geneva said it couldn't be done. Botswana has proved them wrong."

Organisers said similar competitions might be run in neighbouring South Africa and Namibia while current Miss Botswana, 21-year-old student Juby Peacock, said the country could soon even see an openly HIV positive Miss Botswana. "I think it could happen quite soon," she said. "People are getting open to talking about their HIV status." - Reuters

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