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Southern Africa Famine Could Be Deadliest of All, Says UN - 2002-11-07

The United Nations says the famine threatening 14 million people in southern Africa may be more deadly than any famine the world has ever faced. U.N. officials say this is because the region is already reeling from HIV/AIDS.

There are more than 28 million people in sub-Saharan Africa infected by HIV/AIDS and most of those are in the southern Africa region. Urban Jonsson of UNICEF says it is this combination that makes the famine threatening southern Africa so dangerous. "During the last few months it has become very clear that this famine is not of a traditional type, it is of a new type," said Urban Jonsson. "And the new type is that the coping capacity of rural households [has] been broken down, vulnerabilities have increased as a result of 20 years of HIV/AIDS pandemic."

Mr. Jonsson, who is east and southern Africa director of UNICEF, spoke to VOA after a meeting in Johannesburg of the key U.N. agencies working in the region. He said it has become clear to the agencies that their usual methods are not effective because many of those in need of food are already HIV positive, making them more vulnerable. "In normal or traditional famines, one of the coping mechanisms is that people eat much less," he said. "They get thinner, but they manage. You can not do that if 30 percent of the adult population is HIV positive. They need food everyday and they actually need better food."

Mr. Jonsson says governments in the region must urgently escalate their programs to control the spread of HIV/AIDS or this famine will not disappear with the next harvest. Instead, he says, it will continue and keep getting worse.

Mr. Jonsson says regional government leaders must end their silence on the disease or face the certain collapse of their societies. "I used to compare it with the fact that HIV compromises our individual immune system until we succumb to a very simple disease because of lack of immuno-response," said Urban Jonsson. "It is the same with societies, if a society starts to have 30 percent to 40 percent of people infected by HIV that society's immune system, or response capacity, is crushed and the whole society will just break down."

The World Health Organization is looking into ways to improve the nutritional level of food donations made to people with HIV/AIDS. Next week the U.N. humanitarian agencies will release a new plan to increase information and knowledge about the disease in southern Africa.