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It is reckoned that the AIDS scourge began about 20 years ago. In the two decades since then, it has claimed more than 16 million lives. The World Health Organization estimates that 33.6 million people, 1.2 million of them children, live with the HIV infection that is the disease’s precursor. The speed of AIDS’ advance, and its virulence, pose a unique threat to humanity. That is why this week, the United Nations Security Council, for the first time ever, met to discuss a health issue. Looking at AIDS as an international-security issue is the only way it can be effectively combated.

The parallels with war are inexact, but the devastation wrought by the disease is similar. While AIDS is present in every country, it has hit Africa hardest. The southern and eastern parts of Africa, home to less than 5 percent of the world’s population, have more than 50 percent of the world’s AIDS cases, and 60 percent of the fatalities. By the end of last year, AIDS had left over 11 million orphans worldwide; 10 million of them are in Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, 10 people are infected every minute. In fact, the impact of armed conflict pales in comparison: Ten times as many people in Africa have died from AIDS than from war in the 1990s.

Poverty is the perfect incubator for the disease. AIDS has proven treatable, but the drugs are expensive, costing $20,000 per person per year. This is far beyond the range of what most countries can afford; for African nations, some of the poorest and least developed in the world, it is a cruel joke. These nations lack rudimentary health-care delivery systems, as well as basic infrastructure.

For such desperately poor countries, the best investment is in education, which can change the behavior that spreads AIDS: promiscuity, the refusal to use condoms and the attachment of a social stigma to the sickness. Victims must be treated; ignoring them only increases the burden on families, or worse, permits them to spread the disease. Governments and nongovernment organizations are already setting up the community networks that can help limit the spread of AIDS and alleviate its effects.

Such partnerships are an important first step, but more must be done. Rich countries must be prepared to provide funds and technology. Given the virulence of the disease and the way it spreads, it is foolish of them to assume that AIDS in poor countries is not their problem. Fortunately, that seems to have sunk in. The G8 governments have pledged $500 million apiece to help pay for any vaccine that might be developed.

Last December, the International Partnerships against HIV/AIDS in Africa was launched to help bridge the gap between rich and poor. That initiative marked the first time that African governments sat down with the rich nations of the OECD and the U.N. and nonprofit groups to discuss the issue. The private sector must also be included. The Global Business Council on HIV/AIDS has 15 international companies on its roster; that number must grow. Only when all those groups are acting together will the AIDS campaign have a chance of victory.

The scale of the challenge is daunting, but the world can take hope from news that another killer is on the brink of defeat. Last week, the World Health Organization announced that it was beginning a “final push” to eradicate polio by the end of this year. Victory would mark the second complete victory over a disease in human history; smallpox was eliminated in the 1970s.

Once a childhood killer, the number of polio cases worldwide has dropped sharply. A decade ago, there were an estimated 350,000 new cases in 125 countries. By last year, there were only 5,360 reported incidents in 30 countries; 70 percent of the infected were in India, which is to be the focus of the WHO campaign. If that assault goes as planned, then health officials will clean up the remaining “pockets” of infection in the rest of the world.

That is a big if. The polio program has some distinguished names behind it — in addition to the WHO, Rotary International, the United Nations children’s agency and the U.S. Center for Disease Control are on board — but it is still $300 million short of the $1.65 billion needed. There can be no excuse for failing as a result of such a shortfall.

Money is, as always, a chief concern. But public awareness is even more important. If people are alerted to the nature of the threat, they will change their behavior. A high-profile publicity campaign can mobilize publics to fight the disease and its effects. With education, people will quit doing the things that help spread AIDS. We cannot afford to lose the war against this disease. This week’s Security Council session is a call to battle.

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