December 5, 1999

AIDS, the Worsening Catastrophe

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    Even though new drug therapies continue to cut AIDS death rates in wealthy countries like the United States, the news from the AIDS front is chilling. In the developing world, the situation is catastrophic. Even in the United States, where AIDS deaths have been declining, the spread of the AIDS virus continues unabated, with new infections accruing at roughly 40,000 a year for several years now. The only real gain is that drugs are helping the victims live longer. Infection rates are on the rise among minorities, women and young people as AIDS in this country becomes increasingly a disease of the poor and disadvantaged.

    A new report from the United Nations shows that this year AIDS is expected to kill a record 2.6 million people worldwide, higher than in any year since the epidemic began nearly two decades ago. More than 33 million people are infected with H.I.V. But these numbingly high numbers cannot begin to show the impact that AIDS is having on societies being ravaged by the disease. International aid agencies now consider AIDS a major obstacle to economic and human development.

    In sub-Saharan Africa, AIDS is single-handedly destroying the health and welfare advances of the last four decades. In some countries like Botswana, one in four adults is infected.

    Average life expectancy in southern Africa reached 59 years in the early 1990's but is expected to plunge back to 45 years in the next decade due to AIDS. Roughly half of the new infections in Africa are in people 25 years old or younger, who will typically die before their 35th year.

    The social impacts are staggering. More than 11 million children have been orphaned by AIDS since 1981, 95 percent of them in Africa. Soaring death rates among the young, who form a big share of the labor pool, will cripple economic development in many African regions.

    The industrialized nations up to now have provided less than $500 million a year for international AIDS programs. Under the new budget signed by President Clinton, the United States will increase its contribution to global AIDS efforts to $225 million for this year. That move is welcome. But the developed world needs to provide more leadership and resources to attack an epidemic that is overwhelming the world's poorest societies.

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