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World steps up fight in war against AIDS

by Cesar Chelala

In a historic session, the U.N. Security Council met Jan. 3 to address the AIDS epidemic. In that session, U.S. Vice President Al Gore indicated that the United States would add $150 million to next year’s budget to help combat AIDS and other infectious diseases in the poor- est — mainly sub-Saharan African — countries.

Although this is a worthwhile initiative, it still falls short of the funds needed to effectively combat the AIDS epidemic. Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, a group of United Nations agencies which for years has been funding programs to combat AIDS, indicated that his program needs between $1 billion and $3 billion a year to combat AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa alone.

Since the HIV virus was identified in the early 1980s, approximately 50 million people worldwide have been infected with the virus, and 16.3 million people have died. According to U.N. figures, 13.7 million deaths have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. Presently, more than 23 million people on the continent are infected.

Although Africa now has the largest number of cases, experts believe that the epicenter of the virus will shift to Asia in the coming decades, with India leading the world in the number of new infections by the end of this year.

The $150 million that Gore will request from Congress is far below what the U.S. spends on AIDS prevention at home. It is estimated that the U.S. spends $7 billion a year on research, prevention and treatment of AIDS at home, where 40,000 new cases of HIV-infected people are diagnosed every year. In contrast, there are 5.6 million new cases of HIV-infected people in Africa annually.

The AIDS epidemic in Africa has already had a dramatic effect, not only on the economies of the countries and on their development, but on the life expectancy of their populations as well. For example, it is estimated that life expectancy in Botswana will fall from 70 years before the AIDS pandemic to 41 years afterward, while in Zimbabwe it will fall from 66 to 41 years. The figures on life expectancy are equally dramatic in several other African countries.

Libertine Amathila, Namibia’s health minister, has said that “Africa has the least access to drugs, but the greatest access to arms.” With several wars raging throughout the continent, it is important that new financial aid to combat AIDS should be specially targeted for this purpose, and not be used for military purposes. It is critical that monitoring activity be continually carried out by main international donors.

The stigma attached to AIDS has hindered efforts to control the epidemic, which makes the U.N. Security Council session on AIDS all the more remarkable and useful. Putting AIDS in an international public forum is key to combating the disease. This should be complemented by educational activities geared to promoting safe sex, empowering women’s efforts to control the disease and treating other infections in which lesions in the genital tract make people more susceptible to the HIV infection. As U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said, “The first battle to be won in the war against AIDS is the battle to smash the wall of silence and stigma surrounding it.” This Security Council session on AIDS is a courageous step in the right direction.