- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2001

Secretary of State Collin Powells tour of Africa is both an official trip and personal pilgrimage. Traveling with his wife Alma has provoked an "emotional twinge," he said, adding, "Obviously, Im moved by the fact that Im the first African-American secretary of state to visit Africa."

As well-informed as Mr. Powell surely is regarding the bleak AIDS and conflict statistics for Africa, the secretary of state will no doubt be taken aback by the suffering he finds there most Westerners are.

Although there are AIDS sufferers around the world, those in Africa are particularly destitute. Often, they are alienated from friends and family, unable to treat the maladies to which their immune-deficient condition makes them susceptible and which make them waste away. So Mr. Powell did not exaggerate when he stated, "the greatest disaster on earth is unfolding in Africa AIDS." According to a study by the Brookings Institution, more than 70 percent of all the people living with the disease, which total 25.3 million, live in Africa. And AIDS is now the leading killer on the continent.

However, Mr. Powell was also correct in defending the administration´s recent $200 million contribution to a global fund to fight the epidemic. "I don´t think America has anything to apologize for," he said, adding the aid was "seed money" and the first of many future installments to the fund.

The international community must be careful to invest wisely in Africa. Aid dollars should go towards empowering Africans, fortifying democratic institutions and improving the foundations of basic services. What should be avoided, on the other hand, are knee-jerk and often ineffectual attempts to treat AIDS and its related problems as they arise. The treatment of AIDS through anti-viral drugs does help lower transmission rates, thereby providing both short-term relief for infected persons and preventing future infections. But the alarming side effects often cause patients to drop their drug regimes and can help spur mutations of the virus. Even clean water is often absent.

Private pharmaceutical firms are increasingly willing to provide the region with low-cost or free drugs to treat AIDS an offer many African governments have failed to take advantage of. So there is hope for fruitful cooperation between private and public sectors around the world. And U.S. pharmaceutical companies should be in an especially generous mood, because they benefit from U.S.-funded research free of charge.

Mr. Powell´s commitment to Africa and its AIDS crisis is admirable and well-placed. The cost of the epidemic will continue to rise for Africa as the virus claims the lives of the productive population and leaves orphans in its wake. An August 2000 World Bank study found that South Africa´s economic growth would be 17 percent lower in 2010 than it would have been without the ravages of the epidemic.

The AIDS epidemic, just like the prevalence of armed conflict in Africa, is a symptom of larger problems: ignorance of how the disease is transmitted, for instance; official corruption, governmental lack of accountability, generally weak democratic institutions and therefore insufficient basic services for the population. While the AIDS epidemic is a colossal tragedy, the international community should be careful to target the real causes of the region´s problems.

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