Leadership against AIDS

Fighting its spread: African countries need public education, medicine to stem mounting toll.

July 24, 2000

THE 13th International AIDS Conference brought new hope that governments and the private sector together can slow the disease's lethal march through Africa.

The United States' decision to offer $1 billion in loans annually to fight the disease in Africa will help considerably, but suffering countries need more help from outsiders, and they must help themselves.

Many sub-Saharan nations have frighteningly high rates of HIV infection. In 1999, 85 percent of the world's 2.6 million AIDS-related deaths occurred in Africa, and 5.6 million new cases emerged in sub-Saharan countries.

Once, the continent needed leaders to fight for liberation. Now, the independent nations need leaders to fight for their people's survival.

Ugandan and Senegalese officials are among those leading the way. The presidents of those countries preach the gospel of AIDS prevention whenever they make public appearances. As a result, Uganda has drastically reduced its infection rate, and Senegal has kept rates extraordinarily low -- 2 percent -- compared with the rest of the region. In South Africa, by comparison, an estimated 20 percent of adults are HIV-positive.

Public education campaigns in the other countries will help tremendously but aren't enough. Ways must be found to make still-costly anti-AIDS drugs available that prolong life and improve its quality, as well as prevent HIV's spread from mother to infant. More than one-fourth of Zimbabweans are HIV-positive, but that nation has $40 available to treat each case, according to the publication Pharmaceutical Technology.

The U.S. loans -- and aid from other wealthy countries -- can deliver HIV drugs and pay health professionals to control the disease in Africa.

Help is also needed from pharmaceutical companies. If they can resolve intellectual property rights and patents' issues, lower-cost, generic anti-viral drugs and vaccines would become more widely available to African AIDS suffers. The AIDS conference in Durban succeeded despite a bad start at which South African President Thabo Mbeki refused to renounce long-disproved theories that HIV does not cause AIDS. Fortunately, Mr. Mbeki's predecessor, Nelson Mandela, tactfully brushed aside the controversy and called for action against AIDS, something he should have done while president.

Africa's plight requires the same energy the world community eventually generated to fight apartheid. The U.S. loan announcement is an encouraging sign that the movement is gathering momentum.

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