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Obama publicly takes HIV test to help end stigma in Kenya

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By Associated Press

Saturday, August 26, 2006 - Updated: 12:54 PM EST


KISUMU, Kenya - Sen. Barack Obama and his wife took HIV tests before a crowd of thousands Saturday at a clinic in Kenya in an effort to battle the fear and social stigmas that have slowed progress in fighting the spread of AIDS.


Thousands of people gathered around the tiny mobile clinic in Kisumu, western Kenya, to see Barack and Michelle Obama tested for the virus that causes AIDS.


“If you know your status, you can prevent illness,” Obama, the only African-American in the Senate, told the crowd. “You can avoid passing it to your children and your wives.”


Some 1.2 million of Kenya’s 32 million people were infected with HIV in 2004. Obama and his wife did not make public the results of their instant tests, but the senator said “we probably wouldn’t be smiling” if the results were positive.


Some 700 people die each day from AIDS-related illnesses in Kenya, most in the west of the country, though the numbers of infected patients have declined recently.


In the Kisumu area, almost one in five is infected.


Obama said the country’s government has done a better job than many others in Africa of acknowledging the problem and discussing solutions. But people’s reluctance to be tested has slowed progress.


Thousands of well-wishers lined pot-holed roads to greet Obama as he began a journey to his ancestral home, Nyangoma-Kogelo, a tiny village in the rural west where his father grew up herding goats and attending tin-roofed schools.


Police held back the crowds and local politicians called for calm as Obama visited the AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis clinic run by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.


“I just want to say very quickly that I am so proud to come back home,” Obama told the cheering crowds. “It means a lot to me that the people of my father, my grandfather, are here in such huge crowds.”


His father, also named Barack Obama, won a scholarship to a university in Hawaii, where he met and married Obama’s mother. The two separated and Obama’s father returned to Kenya, where he worked as a government economist. He died in a car crash in 1982.


This was Obama’s third visit, but his first since being elected a Democratic senator from Illinois in January 2005. His last visit to Kenya was in 1995.


Obama said he was looking forward to seeing his grandmother and uncle, who still live in the village, but that the trip was more than just a family reunion.


He said his relatives “understand that some of this is going to be dominated by spectacle, and they’ll roll with it as I will roll with it.”


He also planned to visit a project he helps fund, which helps grandmothers find money to take care of children orphaned by AIDS.

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