Monday July 16 5:18 PM ET

African Leaders Awake From AIDS Lethargy: UN

Monday July 16 5:18 PM ET

 

  By Matthew Green

 

  NAIROBI (Reuters) - African leaders have finally woken up to a catastrophic AIDS (news - web

  sites) epidemic, but unless they act soon the disease will take an apocalyptic toll, a top UN AIDS

  envoy said on Monday.

 

  Stephen Lewis, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (news - web sites)'s special AIDS envoy to Africa,

  said governments struggling to throw off years of apathy about the disease must now focus on helping

  women escape oppression and tackling poverty.

 

  ``The extraordinary passivity which characterised the last number of years is genuinely a thing of the

  past,'' Lewis told Reuters in an interview.

 

  ``There are many powerful voices confronting the pandemic publicly and openly, discussing questions

  of intimate sexuality,'' said the envoy, who was appointed last month.

 

  Africa is the continent hit hardest by the virus. It is home to 25 million of the 36 million people living

  with HIV (news - web sites)/AIDS globally and the number of cases is rising rapidly.

 

  ``The consequences are apocalyptic--it's already a catastrophe,'' he said. ``If we can't turn it around

  God knows what's going to happen.''

 

  Experts accuse many African governments of trailing in the race to tackle the epidemic, blaming

  double-digit infection rates in countries as diverse as South Africa and Ethiopia on hesitation in

  implementing prevention schemes.

 

  But pointing to Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo's declaration last month that AIDS may threaten

  the continent with ``extinction,'' Lewis said leaders had reached a turning point.

 

  ``There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that faint light can now be discerned,'' Lewis said.

  ``Before there was bleak and despairing darkness.''

 

  Poverty, conflict and paltry education and healthcare services have helped the disease flourish across

  Africa, but Lewis singled out gender inequality as a key enemy.

 

  Infection levels for teenage girls in many African countries are five times that of males, reflecting their

  vulnerability to men who use their dominant social status to force them into sex.

 

  ``This is a gender-based pandemic and unless we break through on the question of women's

  empowerment and equality we will simply not defeat the pandemic,'' Lewis said.

 

  In Botswana, more than 50% of women in the 25 to 29 age group are infected, a measure of the

  immense scale of the challenge that lies ahead.

 

  Lewis, a former Canadian diplomat working with the United Nations (news - web sites) to help

  African leaders implement pledges to fight the disease, is due to visit Rwanda and Nigeria after Kenya,

  which the UN lists as one of the worst-affected countries.

 

  ``These governments understand that their entire economic and social infrastructure is being shredded,

  their productive capacity is being devastated,'' Lewis said. ``We now see the possibility of turning the

  tide.''