Ethiopians offered free AIDS tests by text message

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopia is sending text messages to mobile phone users offering free HIV/AIDS tests ahead of New Year celebrations, in a drive to have more people checked in sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous nation.

“New Year! New Life! Test for HIV, test with your partner, get your children tested and brighten the future of your family! Free testing. Happy New Year!” says an SMS message which is being sent in batches ahead of this week’s celebrations.

Ethiopia follows a calendar long abandoned by the West that squeezes 13 months into every year and entered the 21st century in 2007. It will become 2002 in Ethiopia on September 11.

The text messages are being sent to all of Ethiopia’s 2.5 million mobile users and have been hitting handsets for the last week in the capital Addis Ababa and most of the country’s major towns. There is also a billboard campaign offering free checks.

“About half a million a year used to be tested,” Meskele Lera, deputy director of Ethiopia’s Federal HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Office told Reuters.

“But that has been increasing every year and, with the help of the publicity campaign we started with our Millennium, we tested 5.8 million last year,” he said.

An estimated 1.1 million people in Ethiopia are infected with HIV, according to the government. The United Nations children’s fund (UNICEF) estimates that more than 900,000 Ethiopian children have been orphaned by AIDS.

The Horn of Africa country, which has a population of some 80 million, normally heavily subsidizes HIV/AIDS testing as well as offering free testing in some public hospitals.

About 33 million people globally are infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS, and most of them live in Africa and other developing countries.

Reporting by Barry Malone; Editing by David Clarke