AIDS will kill 70 million people over the next 20 years, mostly in Africa, unless rich nations step up their efforts to curb the disease, the United Nations said on Tuesday in a report showing the epidemic is still in its early stages.
More than 40 million people worldwide have AIDS or are infected with HIV, the virus that causes the disease, up from 34 million two years ago, and infection rates are climbing, especially in Asia and eastern Europe, said the latest report from UNAIDS, the agency that coordinates UN AIDS programs.
"We haven't reached the peak of the AIDS epidemic yet," said Dr. Peter Piot, the UNAIDS executive director, scotching experts' hopes it would level off. "It's an unprecedented epidemic in human history."
AIDS threatens to wipe out a generation in Africa and destabilize the whole continent, according to the report, released ahead of the 14th International Conference on AIDS which opens next week in Barcelona.
"From a pure medical problem, AIDS has become an issue for economic and social development and even for security," Piot warned, saying the disease was eating away Africa's work force, holding back economic development and aggravating famines.
"The world can't afford a whole continent to be destabilized because of AIDS. It's going to have implications for all continents," Piot said.
The latest UNAIDS report, updating its study of two years ago, makes grim reading.
AIDS killed a record 3 million people last year -- 2.2 million in Africa alone -- and HIV infected another 5 million worldwide. The disease, which has killed more than 20 million since its discovery in 1981, has so far created 14 million orphans. Three million of the 40 million people now infected are children under 15 years of age.
AFRICA IN LINE OF FIRE
Although the disease has slipped from the public eye in developed countries after awareness campaigns in the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic is wreaking havoc in sub-Saharan Africa, where 28.5 million people have HIV or AIDS -- more than 70 percent of those infected worldwide.
Nine percent of adults between the ages of 15 to 49 in sub-Saharan Africa are now infected, the report said, up from 8.6 percent at the end of 1999. The epidemic is chiefly spread through heterosexual sex without condoms.
In Zimbabwe, one-third of adults are infected, up from one-quarter two years ago. Botswana, the worst-hit country, now has a staggering 39 percent of adults infected with HIV or AIDS, up from 36 percent two years ago. Because of AIDS, life expectancy in Botswana has dropped below 40 for the first time since 1950.
The disease is also spreading quickly in some Asian countries, and in the Russian Federation and Eastern Europe, where the total of infected people has roughly doubled.
More than 1 million people are now infected in East Asia, the report said, compared with 530,000 two years ago, while 1 million are also now infected in Eastern Europe and central Asia, up from only 420,000 in the last report.
The future looks even bleaker. Another report released by UNICEF, the UN's children's fund, shows that the vast majority of the world's young people have no idea how HIV/AIDS is transmitted, or how to protect themselves from it.
RICH COUNTRIES MUST PAY
The report called for more money from rich countries to combat the epidemic.
The world must spend US$7 billion to US$10 billion a year by 2005 to tackle AIDS, under targets set last year at the UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS in New York.
"It's not asking for the moon," said Piot. "By any standards that are used for breaches in security, that's peanuts."
Global AIDS funding is now spearheaded by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which was inspired by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and launched in January with the help of the United Nations, the World Bank and others.
AIDS spending in poor countries is set to reach nearly US$3 billion this year, the report said, well above the US$165 million spent in 1998, but far short of the UN targets.
"The international community has not given what it should have," Piot said. "They have considered it a marginal problem."
"It's still an enormous scandal," Piot said, pointing out that just 4 percent of infected people in developing countries have access to the latest antiretroviral drugs, as opposed to about half in North America.
In rich countries, where 500,000 are receiving antiretroviral drugs, 25,000 people died of AIDS last year. In Africa, where only 30,000 are receiving these drugs, 2.2 million died of AIDS.
Although the price of antiretroviral AIDS drugs dropped recently to about US$1 a day, Piot said, the cost of treatment had to fall even more to save lives in Africa.
Doctors will be discussing the latest in anti-AIDS medicine at next week's international conference in Barcelona.
(China Daily July 3, 2002)