- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — About 99 percent of people in Africa who need life-saving treatment for AIDS lack access to antiretroviral therapy, the World Health Organization said in its annual report.

“The HIV/AIDS epidemic continues to spread relentlessly in the African region,” according to the document, issued at an ongoing five-day meeting in Johannesburg of the WHO Regional Committee for Africa. Human immunodeficiency virus is either of two retroviruses, and especially HIV-1, that cause AIDS.

Despite a drop in the cost of AIDS drugs, only half the continent’s population has access to essential medicines to treat killer diseases, while about 1 percent of terminally ill patients with AIDS can obtain appropriate drugs.

“HIV/AIDS interventions for prevention, life-saving treatment and support among Africans is still low. Only 50,000 of the 4.5 million people who need antiretroviral therapy have access to treatment despite significant reductions in cost,” the report said.

Africa is the most AIDS-affected continent in the world, with close to 30 million HIV-infected people and an estimated 3 million AIDS deaths last year. Overall, 9 percent of adults on the continent carry HIV.

Southern Africa is suffering far above the average, with a 20 percent rate in most countries in the region, but Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe have adult prevalence rates above 30 percent.

“The interaction between poverty, malnutrition and HIV/AIDS was starkly illustrated in southern Africa, where 13 million people faced famine because HIV/AIDS undermined the capacity of households and communities to withstand drought,” according to the document.

Delegates heard Tuesday that the economic value of lost life years owing to AIDS in 1999 was estimated to be 12 percent of the gross national product of sub-Saharan Africa, the South African Press Association reported.

WHO Director General Jong-Wook Lee welcomed Monday a World Trade Organization deal announced in Geneva last weekend allowing poor countries that lack pharmaceutical infrastructure to import cheaper generic drugs to fight such killer diseases as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

“Based on this, we can work further, so every person who needs medicines can have access to them at an affordable price,” Dr. Lee said at the opening of the WHO meeting.

The WHO report said: “In Africa, 50 percent of the population, mostly the poor and disadvantaged, do not have access to existing essential medicines, and many more cannot access the new medicines for treating common diseases like malaria and HIV.”

And even if people can get their hands on medication, its efficacy is often doubtful, owing to poor quality, unethical promotion and faulty use.

“Diseases such as malaria, HIV, AIDS and tuberculosis disproportionately affect the poor and marginalized populations and have a devastating impact on human capital and the overburdened health systems.”

About 270 million cases of acute malaria occur annually in Africa, with more than 900,000 deaths, causing an annual economic loss of $12 billion.

Noncommunicable diseases, mental disorders and substance abuse, including of tobacco, place a further burden on health care systems, and unhealthy environments often worsen conditions.

“Over 450 million poor Africans lack access to safe water, 490 million are without adequate sanitation and one out of every five children dies from a communicable disease linked to environmental conditions,” the report said.

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