Facebook Twitter

AIDS in Africa called catastrophic

Life expectancy will drop to 30 in areas, say envoys at meeting

SHARE AIDS in Africa called catastrophic

DURBAN, South Africa — The populations of some AIDS-stricken African countries will soon begin to fall as millions die of the disease, and by 2010 life expectancy will plunge to around 30 — a level not seen in at least a century, according to new estimates.

The figures released Monday are demographers' latest attempt to grasp the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, which has swept across southern Africa during the past few years with staggering speed.

"It's hard to comprehend the amount of mortality we will see in these countries," said Karen Stanecki of the U.S. Census Bureau, which compiled the projections.

Stanecki presented the new figures at the 13th International AIDS Conference, which is being held for the first time in Africa, ground zero of the epidemic. Thousands of AIDS experts from around the world are participating.

Speakers at Monday's meeting struggled for superlatives to describe the scope of this disease in the poorest parts of the globe, especially sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly three-quarters of all HIV-infected people live.

"The problem will get much worse before it gets better," said Dr. Roy M. Anderson of Oxford University. "This is undoubtedly the most serious infectious disease threat in recorded human history."

Dr. Kevin DeCock of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the epidemic "Africa's worst social catastrophe since slavery."

Experts estimate that 25 million Africans are already infected with HIV, the AIDS virus, and most of them will die within the next five to eight years. In Botswana, the world's worst-hit country, more than one-third of all adults carry the virus.

Stanecki said that by 2003, the populations of Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe will begin to fall because of AIDS deaths and dropping fertility resulting from the epidemic. In those countries, the populations will drop between one-tenth and three-tenths of 1 percent. Without AIDS, they would have grown between 1 percent and 3 percent.

Stanecki said this is the first time the Census Bureau has projected negative population growth due to AIDS. The population growth of several other countries — including Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland and Zambia — will be near zero because of the disease.

AIDS already has sharply reduced life expectancy in many African countries. For instance, it is now 39 in Botswana, instead of 71, as it would have been without the disease. And the numbers will only get worse, experts said.

Stanecki projected that by 2010, life expectancy will be 29 in Botswana, 30 in Swaziland and 33 in Namibia and Zimbabwe. Without AIDS, it would have been around 70 in those countries.

"These are a level of life expectancy that have not been seen since the start of the 20th century," she said.

Experts note that programs to educate people about condoms and other ways of avoiding infection clearly can work in southern Africa. Because of early efforts, the epidemic never occurred in Senegal, and Uganda has reversed its high infection level.

AIDS medicines have dramatically improved survival in the United States and Europe, but the drugs are simply too expensive and hard to deliver for most of the world's infected. Five drug companies have pledged to lower their prices in the developing world, but health officials in poor countries note they still lack the health-care services necessary to offer the medicines to the sick.

On Monday, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, created by Microsoft's founder, said it will spend $50 million in Botswana to strengthen that country's health-care system. Merck & Co. said it will match the donation in Botswana, mostly by providing AIDS drugs.

A day earlier, at Sunday's AIDS conference opening ceremony, South African President Thabo Mbeki defended his government's AIDS policies by saying he is simply looking for an African solution to the scourge.

Mbeki has endured a hail of criticism since he convened a panel of scientists to investigate whether the HIV virus causes AIDS — a fact long-accepted by most AIDS experts — and refused to provide medicine to pregnant women to reduce risks for mother-to-child transmission of the disease.

"Some in our common world consider the questions that I and the rest of our government have raised around the HIV/AIDS issue . . . as akin to grave criminal and genocidal conduct," he told delegates. "What I hear said repeatedly, stridently is 'Don't ask questions.' "

As Mbeki spoke, hundreds of people walked out of the ceremony.

AIDS already has sharply reduced life expectancy in many African countries. For instance, it is now 39 in Botswana, instead of 71, as it would have been without the disease. And the numbers will only get worse.