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Byline: Huntly Collins
HLABISA, South Africa _ The rundown community hospital here in northern KwaZulu-Natal Province is crowded with gaunt men and women who lie two, sometimes three to a bed. No one knows how many are infected with the AIDS virus _ the hospital is too poor to even test them. But at local prenatal clinics, one in three pregnant women is turning up HIV-positive, one of the highest infection rates in the world.
It is here, at ground zero of South Africa's expanding AIDS epidemic, that scientists from the United States and South Africa are planning to test the only thing that might stop the scourge _ an AIDS vaccine.
"My people are dying day by day, especially the young," said Mpisendlini Hlabisa, a tribal chief of the ethnic Zulus who live in Hlabisa (shla-BEE-sa) and the surrounding villages, an impoverished rural area of about 220,000, which has welcomed the scientists into its midst.
The particular AIDS vaccine slated for testing here by 2002 is based on strains of HIV that predominate not only in South Africa but also in six other countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Because the region is the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, with 70 percent of the world's HIV cases, any vaccine that proves effective here would likely have an enormous impact in stemming the global pandemic.
"Traditionally, Africa has looked to the West for solutions," said Quarraisha Abdool Karim, a South African scientist involved in the vaccine project. "This is an African solution."
Such African solutions …