Secretary of State Colin Powell warned Thursday the HIV-AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa threatens to wipe out the economic gains provided by U.S. - backed aid programs in recent years. He was the keynote speaker at a business roundtable meeting of the two-year-old African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

The meeting here was in large part a celebration of the success of AGOA, which provides eligible African countries with preferential access to the U.S. market. Since its inception two years ago, more than 35 countries have qualified for the program through market reforms, and U.S. imports from sub-Saharan Africa have grown by more than 60 per cent.

But in his keynote address to the AGOA roundtable, Mr. Powell sounded a somber note, warning that all the gains of AGOA and similar initiatives will, as he put it, "come to naught" unless something is done about the "scourge and tragedy" of HIV-AIDS. He said the incidence of the disease is high enough in some countries that a "whole level of society" is being removed from productive life.

"A class of individuals who were the managerial class, the teachers, the hospital workers, government workers, all being decimated by this disease with infection rates that blind the imagination to the impact. 38, 39 per cent infection rates, destroying societies," said Colin Powell. "This is an obligation that we all have. An obligation to work on this problem, to do everything we can. The government sector, the private sector and I submit, private sector businesses doing business in these countries have a particular obligation to reach out to your work force and beyond into the communities."

Mr. Powell said the United States is leading the world in the fight against the disease, citing more than $1 billion in commitments for the new fiscal year including the $500 million initiative announced by President Bush in June to prevent the transmission of HIV-AIDS from mothers to infants.

But he said some actions cost nothing, such as speaking out "forcefully and consistently" against discrimination against persons living with HIV and AIDS. He also said a number of U.S. companies operating in Africa have set up model programs to educate workers about AIDS risks, promote behavior changes, and to support those affected by the disease.

The AGOA roundtable also included appearances by Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, both of whom said aid to Africa should be directed to the greatest degree possible toward advancing private enterprise.

In that regard, Mr. Zoellick faulted the World Bank, which he said is not doing enough to direct its $3.5 billion in annual aid to Africa to projects that will help businesses grow and become self-sufficient.