BEIJING, Dec 1: China and India, the world's two most populous nations, promised on Wednesday to eradicate ignorance about AIDS, a disease that was at first dismissed by many as a Western evil confined to drug users , homosexuals and prostitutes.

In the world's poorest continent, Africa, where the epidemic has ripped huge holes in the social and economic fabric, thousands staged rallies to mark World AIDS Day and Botswana's president called on his stricken people to "Abstain or Die".

The World Health Organization estimates there are 25.4 million HIV sufferers in sub-Saharan Africa, 60 per cent of the global total in a region with 10 per cent of the world's population.

Activists and governments around the world marked the day with events drawing attention to the disease and promoting its eradication. China, criticized for its slow initial response to HIV/AIDS, put on a public display of commitment to fighting a disease the United Nations fears could infect 10 million Chinese by 2010.

In India, where over five million people have already been infected with HIV, the government said it would make greater efforts to promote awareness, especially in rural areas and among the young.

"The world can no longer afford to ignore the enormity of the HIV epidemic," Antonio Costa, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, told an assembly in Beijing.

"The time has come to strike back at a killer that is transmitted by drug use and sex, as well as by ignorance and denial," he said before an audience waving large styrofoam red ribbons, that have come to symbolise the fight against AIDS.

AFRICA: In South Africa, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town used AIDS Day to criticise the government, which activists have long accused of moving too slowly against a disease that affects one in nine of the population.

"With regard to our government's endless stalling, I am at a loss," Ndungane said in a speech for delivery at an AIDS rally. Vice President Jacob Zuma, speaking at another AIDS rally, turned the problem round and said South Africans themselves must take responsibility.

"If everybody takes the messages of abstention, faithfulness or condom use seriously, we can achieve our goal of drastically reducing the rate of infections."

Veteran politician Mangosuthu Buthelezi urged congregants at a Cape Town cathedral to break down the stigma of AIDS - which has claimed two of his children. "AIDS is decimating our people, tearing apart our families, uprooting our communities," he said.

In badly hit countries such as Botswana, Swaziland and Zambia, AIDS deaths are robbing economies of workers, families of breadwinners and cutting average life expectancy by decades. Botswana President Festus Mogae told the BBC 37 percent of Botswanans were infected with HIV. "We don't seem to be getting on top of it," he said bleakly.

In Nigeria, Lt Commander Nsikak Ekpe, the head of an AIDS NGO, said poverty and lack of access to information were hampering the fight against AIDS in Africa's most populous country.

On the giant Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, the head of the local Catholic Church outraged activists by saying condoms had helped spread the virus by encouraging promiscuity.

"Condoms do not work. They do not stop the virus getting through," Cardinal Gaetan Razafindatrandraare said in a speech the government had invited him to make. "In fact, they are encouraging young people to behave in a promiscuous manner".

Local activists were disgusted. "The cardinal was wrong to say this in public. He has no right to misinform people in this way," said Lalaina Raholiarimanga, Madagascar programme coordinator for the UK-based charity Aids Alliance. -Reuters

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