Prescription for Africa

Apathy a Worse Disease than AIDS

Imagine the reaction of the developed nations to the grim news that every American who resides in the states of Texas and Tennessee will die before the end of the decade from a deadly disease or that 80 percent of Canadians live with this fatal condition.

Can we imagine the international outcry if nearly 50 percent of British or French citizens lived with this deadly disease? Equally appalling would be the news that nearly one-third of the German population or one-fifth of Japanese citizens live under a death sentence from a preventable disease. The developed nations would be up in arms to defeat this mortal enemy. The resolve to fight would even be stronger with the news that the disease has already claimed 17 million lives. Panic would set in if it was revealed that 90 percent of all infected individuals are unaware of their status and may unwittingly transmit the infection to other people.

As implausible as the above scenario may seem, this is the situation in Africa, where more than 25 million individuals live with the HIV that causes the fatal disease AIDS. According to the February 2001 report of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, although Africa represents 10 percent of the global population, it is the home to 70 percent of adults and 80 percent of children living with HIV infection.

In 16 African countries, one-tenth of the adult population aged 15 to 49 is infected with HIV. In the southern region of Africa, one in four women aged 20 to 29 lives with HIV. By the end of this decade these individuals will die of AIDS. Africa accounts for three-quarters of the nearly 22 million dead of AIDS since the epidemic began.

The dead, mostly young men and women, left the care of their small children to grandparents and relatives living in poverty. By 2010, 40 million AIDS orphans, children less than 15 years, will live in Africa. According to the World Bank, within 15 years an unchecked AIDS epidemic in Africa will shrink its economy by 25 percent. This is in a continent where about half of the population lives on US 65 cents a day.

Ominously, the U.N. estimates that 90 percent of infected Africans are unaware of their status. Africans at risk of HIV transmission are unlikely to come forward for testing and counseling as long as anti-HIV lifesaving drugs are out of reach. Less than one-tenth of one percent of the 25 million infected Africans have access to the lifesaving drugs that are readily available to Americans and the citizens of other Western countries. These drugs have changed AIDS from a fatal to a feared but manageable disease in the West. It is indeed puzzling that the unfolding AIDS tragedy in Africa is not attracting the same kind of outrage, concern, or response that would occur if entire Western nations, states, or cities faced uncertain futures from a deadly disease. Instead, it appears that the developed nations are looking for excuses not to act decisively.

For instance, the major pharmaceutical companies have focused on enforcing patent rights rather than facilitating access to lifesaving anti-HIV drugs, the recent spate of announced price cuts notwithstanding. Europe is in a frenzy over foot-and-mouth disease. America is burdened by struggles over tax cuts.

The International Partnership Against AIDS in Africa, a grand public/private/civil society partnership organized by the U.N. to address the epidemic in Africa, is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. It is like having NATO commanders prevent or manage wars in Europe from an outpost in the Kalahari Desert. It appears that there is no shortage of AIDS conferences, consultations, and technical visits by various multilateral agencies.

Wealthy industrialized nations continue to wink at the massive external debts of impoverished African countries. The annual debt-repayment schedules are so punishing that African nations such as Nigeria and Kenya spend more money on debt repayments than on education and healh care combined.

Compounding the problem of international inattention and amnesia is the role of African leaders. The wars, killings, repressive policies, corruption, and economic woes continue unabated in many African countries.

Some African leaders would rather plunge their impoverished countries into chaos than leave office after constitutionally mandated terms. Many African leaders are at "war" over minerals and barren pieces of land when the greatest war is unfolding in their midst.

AIDS is the real war in Africa: It is now responsible for more deaths in the continent than all military wars combined in the last 50 years.

It is time for the developed nations to intervene forcefully to end the AIDS genocide in Africa. An African contracts HIV every 25 seconds. Every day, nearly 7,000 African families bury a loved one who died of AIDS. At least 17 million Africans are already dead. How many more will die before we act?

History is not likely to remember the first decade of this century as the period of technological innovations, tax cuts, or foot-and-mouth disease. History will likely focus on what kind of people and their leaders would allow 25 million people to die needlessly from a disease that is not only controllable with available drugs but also amenable to intensive—albeit expensive—information, education, and communication campaigns.