Congo Civil War Fuels AIDS Spread

Prostitutes here ply their trade for the going rate of $1.

Many are just teenage girls, but probably won't live to see 30.

"Yes, we are worried," one 17-year-old said through a translator, adding that she has worked as a prostitute for a year.

She's worried because there is an even chance that any given customer is infected with HIV. Officially, the AIDS rate in the Democratic Republic of Congo is 5 percent, but health workers say the figure is easily 10 times higher.

"One by one [people] must tell you that my father maybe all died with AIDS," said Moussa Ramadani, a public health activist. "Another one can tell you my aunt, my uncle. Every family will tell you that there is one of their members who died of AIDS."

When it comes to AIDS and HIV, the numbers in sub-Saharan Africa are staggering, close to 30 million people there are living with the disease, 13 million of those affected are young people and children.

The situation is especially severe in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which also is grappling with a vicious civil war. Other countries in Africa have declared war on AIDS, and have put a strong focus on prevention and access to cheap prescription drugs.

AIDS Aggravated

In Congo, the problems are more basic because of the conflict. Access to health care is minimal in much of the country. It is unsafe for health workers to travel to remote areas. And war is literally spreading the disease, because the soldiers use rape as a weapon.

"We have many women here who have died of AIDS, from AIDS because of raping," said Immacule Birhaheka, a women's rights advocate.

The spread of HIV is much higher through rape than it is through consensual sex. And some health organizations estimate that the rate of infection among Congolese soldiers is as high as 60 percent.

One health facility houses female patients who have been gang-raped so badly they needed surgery to repair the damage. With only two beds in a ward for more than 80 women, most patients sleep on the floor.

"Some of them [were] taken away for four or five weeks into the forest," said Lynne Lusi, of Doctors on Call for Service. "And when they're sick, they're abandoned."

ABCNEWS' David Wright in the Democratic Republic of the Congo contributed to this report.

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