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Archive for Saturday, July 8, 2000

AIDS conference visits region ravaged by disease

July 8, 2000

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— With the AIDS pandemic sweeping across Africa, thousands of the world's top experts on the disease are gathering for the 13th International AIDS Conference -- the first time the meeting has been held on the continent most ravaged by the disease.

Seventy percent of the 34 million people infected with the virus that causes AIDS live in sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly all the world's 11 million AIDS orphans live here as well.

"The world is finally recognizing that this is where the center of the epidemic now is," said Karen Bennett, spokeswoman for the conference, which begins Sunday in Durban. The conference delegates "are the guys who develop the drugs and vaccines. I think it will be great if they can look around and see who they are developing them for."

They will not have far to look in Durban, the capital of KwaZulu-Natal province, where nearly one-third of pregnant women are HIV-positive.

That rate, though the highest in South Africa, is not extraordinary among many African countries, where the disease has raged out of control.

In Botswana, nearly 36 percent of adults are infected with AIDS or HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to U.N. estimates. Coffin sales are booming in Zimbabwe, where 25 percent of adults are infected. Many countries in East Africa have double-digit adult infection rates.

West Africa is not yet as badly affected, but one in 20 adults in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation with more than 100 million people, are HIV positive. Every minute, another Nigerian becomes infected.

On a continent where many countries spend just $5 a year per capita on health care, few of those infected have any chance of getting access to the drug cocktails that have helped many of those infected continue to live healthy, productive lives in Western countries.

The disease threatens to severely damage many economies on what is already the poorest continent in the world. Medical costs and the number of AIDS orphans are expected to explode. Life expectancies already have plunged.

"All gains in development, in quality of life, in economic growth, would at the very least cease and could be reversed," said Alan Whiteside, head of the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division at the University of Natal in Durban.

The virus' spread is not unstoppable, however.

Uganda, once plagued by an HIV rate of nearly 14 percent, now presents a picture of hope for Africa.

Under the guidance of President Yoweri Museveni, Uganda launched an intensive public-awareness campaign in partnership with civic and religious groups. Billboards throughout the country warn of "Ukimwi," the Swahili term for AIDS.

The HIV rate has now plunged to 8 percent.

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