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AIDS-Famine Link in Southern Africa Threatens Region - 2003-01-29

Two senior U.N. officials warn the HIV/AIDS pandemic in southern Africa is changing the nature of famine in the region and is unleashing a disaster that threatens the existence of some countries. The officials say humanitarian organizations have succeeded in averting a famine in the region.

The director of the United Nations World Food Program, James Morris, said the size of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in southern Africa makes it unlike any other faced in recorded history. Mr. Morris, who is also the U.N. special envoy to southern Africa, said the pandemic is resulting in the premature deaths of the region's most productive people, especially women, and is making future food shortages more likely.

"The bad news, the horrifying news, is that something very, very different than maybe the world has faced every before, is taking place. The issue, the impact of HIV/AIDS on this part of the world is enormous. Its impact on women and children [is] devastating," Mr. Morris said.

Mr. Morris and Stephen Lewis, U.N. Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS, have just completed a tour of several countries in the region that were until recently threatened with famine. The officials wanted to assess the response of the humanitarian community to the emergency. They concluded that a large and rapid international effort has averted what could have been a huge drought-induced famine. But Mr. Lewis said they also discovered that underlying the food crisis was another, even more threatening one, HIV/AIDS.

"The sense of human destruction is positively surreal in this interlocking of AIDS and hunger. Death has become the fulcrum of society it is everywhere evident. And if you think of it in the context of food shortages and hunger and AIDS there is a certain irony that the image of the society that comes to mind, is the grim reaper," Mr. Lewis said.

He said it is the women of the region who are bearing the worst of the pandemic. "The women, above all the women. There has never been an historical precedent for what is happening to the women on this continent. It is the most ferocious assault on women that has ever been recorded. They are disproportionately vulnerable in huge numbers, and not only are they sick and dying, but they are burdened with the care of the society as a whole. They care for all others who are sick and dying, they care for orphans, they are never recognized for the care they give, it is all considered voluntary when it is clearly conscripted and they do not get a penny's pay for what they do," Mr. Lewis said.

The United Nations said AIDS has already created 2.5 million orphans in the countries of southern Africa, with more than 11 million in all of sub-Saharan Africa. The officials say the pandemic could consume entire countries, and that it requires an unprecedented response from the international community, and from the governments in the region. Mr. Lewis urged the South African government in particular to introduce an AIDS treatment program as soon as possible.

At the same time, the officials were upbeat about averting the famine faced by over 15 million people in the southern Africa region. Mr. Morris said the response of the international community was swift, effective and generous.

"A serious humanitarian disaster has been averted. Through the extraordinary partnership and good work of governments, the NGOs, the U.N. community and the generosity, the incredible generosity, of donors, food has been put in place over the last several months in such a way that starvation and death has not occurred. And that is something to celebrate because when we started on our first mission the possibility of huge tragedy, of loss of life, was there," Mr. Morris said.

He said he thinks Lesotho, Malawi, and Zambia no longer face a food crisis, but he is less hopeful about Zimbabwe, where food shortages have been made worse by the government's land reform program, corruption and political repression.