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AIDS Infections Rapidly Increasing, Says WHO Official

A top official of the World Health Organization says that while Africa has borne the brunt of the AIDS pandemic, there are "staggering increases" in new infections in Asia, the Middle East and especially eastern Europe. The WHO official, Bernhard Schwartlander, spoke Monday at the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona.

Dr. Schwartlander, who heads the WHO's Department of HIV/AIDS, says the AIDS virus is "now present in virtually every country in the world." He says no society can consider itself immune to HIV/AIDS."

He says the seven hardest hit countries are all in sub-Saharan Africa. "In these seven countries, prevalence rates are consistently between 30 and 50 percent in the major cities," he said. "This means that in Francistown or Gaborone, every second or third person sitting on a bus or walking on the street is HIV positive. It is almost impossible for me to get my mind around these figures."

He says that 10 years ago, he would not have believed that was possible.

He says the pandemic is changing rapidly. Eastern Europe is one example. "A decade ago, less than half a generation, very few HIV infections had been reported anywhere in Eastern Europe. While Africa, the U.S., and western Europe were in the grip of advancing epidemics, most countries in this region were clinging to hope that maybe AIDS was only a disease of the poorest countries or the richest," said Bernhard Schwartlander.

He says that after years of hearing little about AIDS in Indonesia, HIV prevalence has risen dramatically, triggered by infections among intravenous drug users and sex workers. The epidemic also is slowly but steadily taking hold in China and India, two countries, he says, that alone could determine the future course of the epidemic."

The WHO official says one of the most worrying trends is that nearly one half of all new infections are among those between the ages of 15 and 24.

Yet, Dr. Schwartlander says there is good news to report. He says the epidemic can be reversed. He says anti-retroviral drugs can improve the quality of life in poor nations, as they have in rich countries. And if governments follow through on the commitments they made last year at a special U.N. session on HIV/AIDS, he says millions of new infections could be avoided.