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AIDS Threatens South Africa Economy, Warns World Bank - 2003-07-15

A new World Bank study warns South Africa may collapse economically if nothing is done to treat HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The draft report coincides with a major AIDS conference taking place this week in Paris. South Africa's former president, Nelson Mandela, in a speech to the conference, called on African countries and richer nations to do more to fight AIDS and HIV.

According to the World Bank report, South Africa is facing what it calls a complete economic collapse within four generations unless steps are taken to combat HIV/AIDS.

If nothing is done to treat the virus, the World Bank predicts, children may stop going to school, and young adults may stop bearing and raising children, creating a tremendous loss of human capital.

Some critics fault the government of South African President Thabo Mbeki for not doing enough to fight AIDS.

Previous research predicts that major segments of society - teachers or scientists for example - may be devastated by the virus in countries like South Africa, leaving an indelible scar on development.

Such predictions are being echoed during a four-day AIDS conference in Paris, which ends Wednesday. One French economist, Jean-Paul Moatti, said experts have systematically underestimated the economic impact of AIDS on societies. And he said it amounted to economic stupidity not to deliver treatment to developing countries.

But it is former South African President Nelson Mandela who has captured the most attention and applause to date. In a speech to the conference, the 84-year-old Mr. Mandela bluntly criticized countries affected by the AIDS virus for not doing enough to combat it. Their failure to combat AIDS, he said, amounts to a quote, travesty of human rights. So far, 26 million people have died because of the virus over the past two decades.

But Mr. Mandela did praise a handful of countries - notably Uganda, Senegal and Botswana - for their efforts against the disease, saying they had set an example for the rest of the region.

Mr. Mandela also criticized the expense of lifesaving, anti-retroviral drugs, which he said made them unaffordable for the poor. And while he praised President Bush's initiative to spend $15 billion on fighting AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean, he warned that promise must be honored.

Mr. Mandela also urged the European Union to match the American pledge. Last month, French President Jacques Chirac announced the tripling of France's contribution - to about $170 million a year - to a United Nations fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. But the EU failed to agree last month on a union-wide commitment to increase its pledge, and a European Commission official told news agencies that no new commitments would be made during the AIDS conference.

AIDS activists warn the U.N. fund is in dire need of more money. Its coffers are so low, they say, it is incapable of funding some future, draft projects.