For the community of the Hlabisa area, near the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, Aids is not a "textbook" problem but a grim, harsh reality.

"We have lots of funerals here, especially of young people. We suspect they are dying of Aids," said church minister Dean Welcome Khumalo, who conducts many of the funerals.

"Most people here know someone else - a friend or partner or family member - who has died of Aids."

But the prevalence of HIV in Hlabisa is no higher than anywhere else in the province. According to Professor Salim Abdool Karim of the Medical Research Council (MRC), HIV statistics in Hlabisa were similar to the rest of KwaZulu-Natal - about 30 percent of patients at the local clinic were infected.

The MRC is involved in the International Aids Vaccine Initiative, and is planning to conduct vaccine trials in Hlabisa, a rural area in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal with a population of about 20 000.

Karim said the MRC was busy working on a vaccine with two US organisations. A virus from a Durban person was used as the basis for the vaccine, which he anticipates would become available by the end of next year or early 2001.

"From our experience with other countries, you cannot do vaccine trials in a community where there is no level of

openness about HIV. Therefore the MRC began preparing the Hlabisa community more than a year ago for the trials."

Various bodies in the community were consulted, and in January this year a Community Advisory Body (CAB) was

elected consisting of roleplayers from the Hlabisa Tribal Authority, the health sector, the education sector, the

Transitional Local Council, local churches and a South African Police Service youth group.

The CAB has appointed community liaison officers, who went from door to door, educating families on HIV/Aids and informing them of the trials.

The MRC recently bought land in Hlabisa, and a hi-tech research facility, complete with living quarters for staff, would be ready by August. The MRC would also be manning a

primary health care clinic on the site - the first in Hlabisa.

Karim said the level of openness and co-operation from members of the community of Hlabisa was "exceptional".

And the community's support in this initiative was clearly

evident when Inkosi Mpisendlini Hlabisa called for an imbizo, which was held in the village on Thursday.

A buffalo was donated to the village by the KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Services, and more than 1 000 people were served lunch and given an overview of and introduced to the roleplayers in the initiative.