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AIDS Epidemic Remains a Serious Socioeconomic Hurdle in Developing Countries

At the turn of the millennium six years ago, governments around the world committed to eight goals aimed at improving living standards in poor countries by 2015. These so-called Millennium Development Goals included such benchmarks as reducing poverty and hunger, achieving universal education and improving the health of women and children. But a new analysis indicates that the global epidemic of HIV-AIDS may keep many countries from achieving these goals.

Economic development expert Robert Hecht led a group of researchers from the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative that looked at AIDS-related scientific literature accumulated over the past decade. Hecht says their survey of the data found that the HIV-AIDS epidemic has lowered incomes, made the lives of children less healthy and shortened the life spans and earning capacity of adults.

"We found that in the most-affected countries in southern Africa, for example, where over 20 percent of adults are HIV-infected, that typically annual GDP or growth of income was lowered by more than 2 percent each year because of the negative effects AIDS was having. It was killing people in their prime," Hecht adds. "It was making it very difficult for adults to work and lead productive lives."

Hecht says that in addition to its impact on adult productivity, AIDS has had a devastating effect on families in which parents have contracted the disease. The impact goes beyond mothers transmitting HIV to their newborn children. When mothers contract AIDS, he says, they are less able to care for their children.

"The mother might not be able to breast feed it," he observes. "The mother won't be able to look after its health and its own nutrition as well as otherwise, the family may be caught up in trying to save the mother or treat her for as long as possible and doesn't buy as much food for the child. There are a whole series of consequences or repercussions, even when the child is healthy, that later on lead to higher illness and death for the children."

Robert Hecht says that children who lose their parents to AIDS are measurably different than their peers who haven't lost parents to the disease. He cites an example from the southern African country of Lesotho.

"Your chances of being malnourished [there] are high," he notes, "and of course, this has very negative effects on your ability to learn as a child in school, and to be a successful productive adult later on. You're twice as likely to be malnourished in Lesotho if you've lost parents to HIV and AIDS."

Hecht says his team's analysis suggests a need to redouble efforts to prevent new cases of HIV and AIDS through education, condoms, and new initiatives such as vaccines and microbicides.

Hecht's article appears in the Public Library of Science, an online, open-access medical journal.