Niger's religious leaders unite to fight AIDS

NIAMEY, Aug 6 (Reuters) - Muslim, Catholic and Protestant leaders in Niger have joined together to try to teach the impoverished country's young people how to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS.

The religious leaders formed an alliance meant to lend weight to government efforts to combat the spread of the disease, including promoting the need for people to take AIDS tests and helping better integrate those already infected.

"Because of their impact on communities and households, and the way they are organised and present on the ground, religious organisations are ideally placed to influence people's values and behaviour," Religious Affairs Minister Labo Issaka said.

Almost half the population of the former French colony is aged under 15 and its birth rate was the highest in the world in 2006. Landlocked on the southern edge of the Sahara, it ranked bottom of the latest U.N. human development index.

Just over 1 percent of people aged between 15 and 49 are infected with HIV in Niger, according to U.N. statistics, one of the lower prevalence rates in sub-Saharan Africa. But with rapid population growth authorities have vowed not to be complacent.

They set up around 40 medical centres in Niamey where people could have voluntary, free tests in late June and early July but only 9,000 youths turned up, well below the anticipated 22,000.

Niger is 95 percent Muslim and, as in the rest of Muslim West Africa, Islamic preachers have huge influence over the daily lives of much of the population.

When the government of Senegal, another predominantly Muslim West African state, started trying to fight HIV/AIDS in the late 1980s by sending doctors into villages to teach people about condoms, they were given a hostile reception.

Religious teachers initially thought promoting contraception risked creating a generation of promiscuous infidels. But they gradually agreed to preach abstinence and fidelity while not criticising condom use.

In a marked contrast to Nigeria, where some Muslim clerics say AIDS is part of a Western conspiracy to wage war on Islam, the strategy paid off. Senegal had the second lowest prevalence rate in sub-Saharan Africa in 2003.

Less than half of children in Niger go to school and eight in 10 adults are illiterate, making fighting AIDS by conventional educational methods difficult.

"Our aim is to establish a screening culture for HIV/AIDS in this country," said Abdoulaye Bagnou, head of a government anti-AIDS body.