CAPE TOWN, South Africa – Oprah Winfrey took an HIV test Saturday and encouraged students at her new school and their loved ones to follow suit, in a bid to inspire more openness about the disease that is devastating South Africa's youth.
At an open day for families at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, the talk show host promised the 152 pupils free AIDS testing, counseling and — if necessary — treatment.
"To be a great leader you must be of sound mind, body and spirit," Winfrey said. "Part of leadership is having the courage to demonstrate true action. Today I have taken the test to demonstrate why it's so important."
Winfrey's test results are to be kept confidential, as will those of the girls, according to a statement issued on behalf of the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. Taking an AIDS test was not mandatory for students, and results will not affect their participation at the school.
An estimated 5.4 million of South Africa's 48 million people are infected with the AIDS virus. In 2006, an estimated 950 people died per day from AIDS-related diseases, while 1,400 were infected each day — a total of 530,000 new infections — according to an authoritative report by the Actuarial Society of South Africa and the Medical Research Council.
The report warned that fewer than half of South Africa's 15-year olds will live to see their 60th birthday because of the pandemic and that the youth faced a "bleak future."
Health authorities and AIDS activist groups say the stigmatization surrounding the virus and resulting reluctance to be tested is especially alarming. Young women are especially at risk, and many of the girls at Winfrey's school come from families affected by AIDS.
Winfrey selected the 11- to 12-year-old girls for the school from 3,500 applications across the country. To qualify, they had to show both academic and leadership potential and have a household income of no more than $787 a month.
Winfrey's luxurious academy opened last Tuesday at a ceremony attended by Spike Lee, Tina Turner and former South African President Nelson Mandela, who inspired Winfrey in 2000 to undertake the project.
Built on 52 acres, the 28-building campus resembles a luxury hotel, with state-of-the-art classrooms, computer and science labs and a library, theater and wellness center. Each girl lives in a two-bedroom suite. It will eventually have 450 students.
Winfrey, who herself had an impoverished childhood, plans to build a house on the campus so she can monitor the girls' progress.