The AIDS pandemic is far worse than the catastrophic prediction of one decade ago. Not only are vast swathes of Africa fraught with epidemic proportions of the disease, the infected being more numerous than the non-infected in some regions, but also countries such as Russia, unmentioned in AIDS statistics ten years ago, see an alarming rise in figures for HIV infections.
AIDS is no longer an African disease, or a disease restricted to drug addicts or gay communities. More and more heterosexuals are becoming infected through normal sexual relations. In some parts of Western Africa, according to the WHO, more and more virulent strains of the disease are appearing.
In the predominantly Moslem countries of northern Africa, AIDS is seen as a divine punishment for adultery or sinners. In most of Africa, the subject is taboo. Those testing HIV positive do not tell their families, as a rule, for fear of becoming social outcasts. However, nowadays, public figures are beginning to “come out” and explain to the community, on TV, that they are HIV positive, as a public awareness measure to change conservative mentalities and to bring the population and governments into a mind-set whereby they face up to reality.
It is not only in Africa where AIDS is prevalent. In a world with 36 million people suffering from the disease, there are areas where the number of infected is not yet alarming, but the rise in HIV infections is disturbing. One such region is the Russian Federation and Eastern Europe. In this area, the number of intravenous drugs users has multiplied rapidly over the past decade. It is estimated that Russia now has 4 million IV drugs users, 50% of whom are expected to be HIV positive by the end of 2002, according to Medicins Sans Frontiers.
The National Aids Centre in Russia has issued figures which show that the number of people with AIDS in 2000 was 5,500 whereas in 2001, it was 70,000. It is this dramatic rise in HIV infections which is so alarming in Russia. Vadim Pokrovsky, the Director of the Russian Centre for the Prevention of AIDS, claims that 1 million Russians are currently HIV positive and in two to three years’ time, Russia will have “millions of cases”.
AIDS is not restricted to Africa, nor is the Russian Federation an island. In Western Europe and the USA, progress formerly made against AIDS has stalled. A UNAIDS spokesperson has confirmed that the current AIDS pandemic is “far more extensive than predicted a decade ago”. In certain parts of Africa, one third of today’s 15-year-olds will die from the disease.
The latest figures issued by UNAIDS and the WHO are explicit: North America and W. Europe: HIV infected 1.5 million. 2001: 26,800 deaths and 75,000 new cases. Eastern Europe and Central Asia: 1 million infected. 2001: 23,000 deaths and 250,000 new cases. Central and South America: 1,820,000 HIV cases. 2001: 110,000 deaths and 190,000 new cases. N. Africa and Middle East: 440,000 HIV cases. 30,000 deaths and 80,000 new cases. Sub-Saharan Africa: 28.1 million cases, with 2.3 million deaths and 800,000 new cases. Asia/Pacific: 7.1 million cases, with 435,000 deaths and 2 million new cases.
There is no room for complacency. AIDS kills. The options are simple: safe sex, clean needles. The figures speak for themselves.
Timothy BANCROFT-HINCHEY PRAVDA.Ru