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UN Report Warns Sub-Saharan Africa Worst Hit by AIDS Epidemic - 2003-11-25

A U.N. report says Sub-Saharan Africa is by far the region worst hit by the AIDS epidemic and new infections of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. An official says there is not much that African governments can do without adequate resources.

The U.N. AIDS agency says this year, almost 27 million of the world's 40 million people infected with HIV are in Sub-Saharan Africa. The region saw more than 3 million new HIV infections this year, while more than two million people died of AIDS.

The U.N. Kenya country coordinator, Kristan Schoultz, said women living in Africa are particularly vulnerable to HIV infection. "This year's report also dramatically illustrates how the epidemic is eroding Sub-Saharan Africa's future. The total number of people living with HIV has continued to rise on this continent, with women considerably more likely - at least 1.2 times as likely - to be infected than men," she said.

Ms. Schoultz says young women in Sub-Saharan Africa between the ages of 15 and 24-years-old are 2.5 times more likely than young men of the same age to become infected with HIV.

Ms. Schoultz also says one in five adults in the southern Africa region are infected with HIV, and South Africa alone has more than five million people infected with the virus.

She also says only one-percent of Sub-Saharan Africans who need anti-retroviral drug therapy are receiving that treatment. But some countries are moving to change that, including South Africa, which has just announced a program to provide the drugs for free to any South African who needs them, within five years.

But there were some bits of good news for Africa in the U.N. report. It says the epidemic is leveling off in Zambia, and, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the prevalence of HIV among young pregnant women dropped by half in the past eight years.

Ms. Schoultz said Uganda and Senegal continue to be models for fighting the epidemic, primarily because of the government's early involvement in the epidemic and high levels of political commitment.

Ms. Schoultz said behind the grim numbers lies a more hopeful reality. "At the same time, it is important to recognize that the vast majority of people living in Sub-Saharan Africa are still uninfected. Massively scaling up our prevention efforts is vital in order to make sure that these millions of uninfected Africans maintain their uninfected status. They should never become infected with HIV," she said.

But scaling up AIDS programs might prove difficult for most African governments.

The acting director of Kenya's National AIDS Control Council, Dr. Patrick Orege, said Kenya's program to fight AIDS is experiencing a shortfall of more than $58 million.

He called on the international community to help countries like Kenya fight the disease and provide treatments to those who need them. "We need to see much more resources raised from the developed countries. It has happened in the fighting of other diseases, why not HIV? It is a moral challenge to them," he said.

Dr. Orege said without international help the Kenyan government will need to rely on local communities' limited resources to cope with the shortfall.