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Widespread infection from AIDS virus threatens to destabilise African nations

By Chris Gray
08 July 2002

The Aids virus threatens to destabilise entire nations in Africa, an international conference on the disease was warned yesterday.

Ministers from Botswana told the 14th International Aids Conference that their country was facing "extinction" because nearly 40 per cent of adults were infected.

Their warnings came as activists marched on the conference in Barcelona to demand that two million infected people in the developing world were guaranteed access to anti-Aids drugs. The prices of such drugs have fallen by about 90 per cent in Africa as pharmaceutical firms have bowed to pressure but they still remain too expensive for most people in developing countries.

Dr Peter Piot, executive director of the United Nations Aids programme, said yesterday that, from a historical perspective, the world was still in the early days of an Aids epidemic. "Aids is starting to destabilise entire nations in Africa. A destabilised part of the world, however far away it may be from where you are, is having an impact on your own country," he said.

Last year, one million children in Africa lost their teacher because of Aids, he said, and countries such Botswana risked "undeveloping" because of the disease, despite doing well economically. In Botswana, 39 per cent of adults are infected with HIV and that rises to 50 per cent in the north-east and among expectant mothers in urban areas.

Scientists had thought that HIV/Aids might reach a natural limit in sub-Saharan Africa, where 28.5 million people are infected, but Botswana's experience has dashed that hope. Life expectancy for the 1.6 million people in Botswana has fallen below 40 for the first time since 1950, and is expected to dip below 30 if the spread of the virus is not reversed.

Botswana, which has the most valuable diamond mines in the world, is not eligible for international development funding because its economy is too successful. However Botswana's Health Minister Joy Phumaphi, told a fringe meeting: "We are all engaged in a fight to the death."

The conference was also told that a campaign to change young people's sexual behaviour in South Africa was starting to show results.

The loveLife campaign aims to use advertising and marketing to spread safe sex messages. In recent surveys, 75 per cent of young South Africans said they had become more aware of the risks.