The plague that won't go away


DURBAN, South Africa -- Southern Africa faces a public health menace so deadly that it threatens to destroy our families, economy and political stability within 10 years.

Nearly 1,600 South Africans become infected with HIV each day; 10 percent of our total population is already HIV-positive. Life expectancy in some parts of South Africa has fallen from 65 years to 56 years, and continues falling with terrifying speed. University of Natal demographer Karen Michels predicts that by 2005, as little as 13 percent of the population in some provinces will live to be 40.

Confronted with oppressive poverty, inadequate medical facilities and rampant tuberculosis, as well as many other priorities beyond the health sector, the emerging democracy of South Africa is in no position to battle the AIDS epidemic alone.

While donors from around the world have offered assistance, an exponential increase in resources is needed to address the epidemic effectively. The deeply discounted drugs provided by pharmaceutical firms, for instance, while deeply appreciated, require refrigeration, reliable distribution and technicians capable of maintaining complicated combination drug therapies -- none of which can be counted on in South Africa. Care and support for people living with AIDS are critically important, but it is only one aspect of the epidemic. Prevention is a priority.

The severity of this crisis has not yet been fully realized outside Africa. From my perspective inside South Africa, this global apathy toward our circumstances is painful, yet understandable. It would be easy for me, if I were not living in a region containing 70 percent of the world's HIV infections, to compartmentalize, to dismiss the situation as an "African problem." And I understand how difficult it is for our neighbors to commit their hearts -- and money -- to a cause seemingly so far removed from their own problems.

But the comfort provided by Africa's remoteness might not always exist for less afflicted nations.

A July 1999 White House report states, "As goes Africa, so will go India, Southeast Asia, and the Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union, and by 2005, more than 100 million people worldwide will have been infected with HIV. Leadership and resources are desperately needed to turn the tide."

The U.S. government recently declared the AIDS crisis in Africa "a threat to U.S. national security." While it is a pity it takes such self-interest to motivate action, it is a beginning.

In the absence of a cure in the foreseeable future, the best hope, it appears, is adoption of safe sex practices by our youth. But, paradoxically, the best way to reach youth is not by emphasizing the horrors of AIDS, but by stressing the joy of healthy living. And the best way to get this message to youth is through activities they care about: music, sports and drama.

During the XIII International AIDS Conference in Durban this week, organizations like Africa Alive! will sponsor concerts and internationally distributed CDs. Teens and pre-teens will be engaged in AIDS education dramas. AIDS prevention messages are also being promoted through athletic events and through a Web site,

By incorporating AIDS prevention into life-affirming messages and youth-oriented activities, we hope to build momentum -- momentum that will keep us moving forward long after the conference crowds and cameras are gone.

It is my hope that the world pays close attention to the lessons learned in Durban and that the education is much less costly for the peoples of India, Southeast Asia and the former Soviet Union.

Pooven Moodley is a human rights attorney and project director of Africa Alive!, an eight-country initiative to educate and give youth the skills and confidence they need against HIV/AIDS with support from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs.

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