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Statistics on HIV/AIDS Still Appalling but UN Envoy Says Pandemic Can be Stopped

The Special UN Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa says 20 years into the HIV/AIDS pandemic, sub-Saharan Africa is the scene of terrible and appalling human carnage.

Stephen Lewis says the developed world still seems unaware of the magnitude of the pandemic on the continent.

"It’s beyond belief, and Africa is absolutely at the center of the pandemic. Nowhere in the world, at the moment, approximates the grief that Africa is experiencing."

The statistics are grim. Mr. Lewis says Africa, more than the rest of the world “is much more under siege” because two thirds of the infections and deaths are in sub-Saharan Africa. He says of the 40 million people living with the infection worldwide, up to 27 million are on the continent.

The UN Envoy says worldwide, half those with AIDS are women, but in Africa the rate is 58 percent. Even more drastically, he adds that among young people in Africa - aged 15 to 24 – three out of four with HIV/AIDS are women.

"There’s just some kind of paralyzing inertia around the response to HIV and AIDS which is almost inexplicable … there are places in this world where people are absolutely desperate, the epicenter is southern Africa, without question, and the Africans themselves, having lived in a state of denial and silence for very long, are now completely mobilized; they could overcome the pandemic, but they need support for drugs and for capacity and for infrastructure," said Lewis. "And if we met the promises we made over these last years it would be possible to turn this pandemic around."

Mr. Lewis offers two theories about why the pandemic has not been dealt with adequately in Africa, and the first is prejudice.

"Some people would argue that there’s a kind of subterranean racism at work where Africa is concerned, that the world always responds less willingly to Africa – look at the genocide in Rwanda in 1994; look at the situation in Darfur today. For whatever reason, the support for Africa is always slower .…"

Mr. Lewis’ second theory is that some rich nations believe money for Africa is wasted.

"I guess maybe Africa got lost after the Cold War was ended and no one considered it important anymore, or it may be that there are all kinds of cynical assumptions that when you give money to Africa it’s siphoned off, or it never gets to the people who need it, or it just goes down a never ending hole of relief. All those mythologies persist. But the truth is that what’s really happened here, I think, in the western world is a kind of criminal negligence in response to this attack on the human condition."

But Mr. Lewis says all is not lost. There are ongoing efforts to address the pandemic.

He said, "I think that by initiating treatment the way we have, and by getting very large numbers of people into treatment -- and it will be in the millions by next year – we will have a very significant reservoir of hope unleashed, we’ll have momentum … and by renewing emphasis on prevention, maybe we can begin to limit the numbers of infections, I think that’s the breakthrough point, frankly."

The Special AIDS Envoy for Africa says the upcoming G-8 summit in Scotland may be a turning point for HIV/AIDS on the continent. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is putting Africa at the top of the agenda.

If the money flows from the G-8 summit this July, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer – the Minister of Finance in the United Kingdom – really manages to get everybody together … if there is a “dead set” on raising the money, then we can break the back of the pandemic.

Mr. Lewis says Britain’s proposal, referred to as “the Marshall Plan for Africa,” would promote Africa’s welfare through debt relief, aid, investment and trade. He says this effort, combined with a genuine concern for the continent’s welfare by leaders of the developed world, would lead to real progress in fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa in the years ahead.

In related developments, the Bush Administration has announced that more people worldwide are being treated with anti-retroviral drugs under PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. It’s a five year, 15 billion dollar initiative which includes bilateral programs in 100 countries around the world. The White House says more than 235,000 people -- more than half of them women -- are currently receiving antiretroviral therapy under PEPFAR, and most of these men, women and children live in sub-Saharan Africa.