WASHINGTON - Former President Bill Clinton warned yesterday that Africa's promising future could be destroyed by AIDS, and said the United States needs to do more to boost the supply of medicine to the continent and to develop a vaccine against the disease.
In an address devoted to the problems and potential of Africa, Clinton called AIDS "the biggest killer since the Black Plague," with 28 million Africans infected, and a key reason why their life expectancy is "48 years and falling."
Without major efforts to fight the disease, some countries face the loss of much of their productive, middle-aged populations because people now or soon to be infected will die prematurely, he said.
Clinton said that in Botswana, a southern African nation with a 35 percent HIV-infection rate, companies are hiring two employees for each job slot, fearful that one of them might soon die.
Costly retroviral drugs are key to keeping millions of AIDS patients alive and to combating the spread of the disease through testing and prevention, Clinton said.
People won't submit to testing only to be told, "You got it; you die," Clinton said. But with greater availability of the drugs that have kept alive former basketball star Magic Johnson, who announced in 1991 that he was HIV-positive, and others for years, more people would get tested and seek treatment, he said.
A settlement last year between the South African government and major pharmaceutical manufacturers offered hope for getting more drugs to AIDS victims, but it has not been properly administered by authorities there, Clinton said.
Clinton noted that the Bush administration had backed a $300 million increase in money for a global fund to combat AIDS launched by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, but said, "Our fair share would be $1 billion more than that."
At a time when the administration is seeking tens of billions more for the military and homeland security, fighting the AIDS epidemic needs to be seen as "part of our defense," because the disease's rapid spread overseas might result in more Americans becoming infected, Clinton said.
Besides drugs to retard the development of full-blown AIDS, the United States needs to encourage research into a vaccine for the disease by offering more generous tax credits, he said. All of Africa's promise, he said, "can be destroyed by AIDS."
Clinton, recently back from a five-nation tour of the continent, has made Africa, the AIDS crisis and the fight against global poverty a focus of his post-presidential life. He is co-chairman of the International AIDS Trust with former South African President Nelson Mandela.
In his speech yesterday to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here, the former president acknowledged that his administration "didn't get everything right in Africa." He drew criticism for his failure, in 1994, to intervene in Rwanda to halt the genocidal slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, and has since voiced regret for not having done more.
He said that although Americans in both parties now recognize that Africa matters, relief for Africa's problems of disease, warfare and poverty is being hindered by widespread ignorance in the West, including the United States.
If Americans want a world defined by economic opportunity, one where their security is not threatened and disputes are resolved peacefully, "we have to have a commitment to make Africa part of it," he said.
As bad as Africa's AIDS epidemic is, it could become overshadowed by the water-sapping effects of global warming on the continent, he said.
Africa needs a new round of debt relief from the world's financial institutions, which should be directed not just to the very poorest countries but to all those with HIV-infection rates of 15 percent or more, he said. Countries that have received debt relief have been able to raise spending on education and health care, he said.
Clinton also wants to see trade benefits expanded under the African Growth and Opportunity Act implemented two years ago.