Global attention is turning away from the AIDS epidemic at just the wrong time and that means a fresh wave of the disease could infect millions of people in high-risk countries, a leading expert said.
Alan Whiteside, director of the health economics & HIV/AIDS research division (HEARD) at Kwazulu Natal University said many African countries, where the disease poses the biggest threat, were failing to implement long-term prevention measures and needed help to plan for the battle ahead.
The AIDS threat is still very real in places like Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi and South Africa, he said, and a sense that the international community is ticking it off as “dealt with” is highly risky.
“(Fighting) the AIDS epidemic had a huge amount of support for many years, but there seems to be a perception now that it has been dealt with and we can turn our attention to other issues.
“This is most emphatically not the case in a number of parts of the world. It is not appropriate to turn our backs on it,” Whiteside told Reuters in a telephone interview from South Africa, where the disease kills an estimated 1000 people a day.
Some 33.4 million people in the world have HIV, the sexually transmitted human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. Since AIDS emerged in the early 1980s, almost 60 million people have been infected and 25 million have died of HIV-related causes.
Sub-Saharan Africa is by far the worst affected region, accounting for 67% of people infected with HIV and 91% of all new infections in children, according to United Nations data.
Health workers, education programmes
Whiteside said health ministries needed to use aid funds now to equip and train health workers and produce safe-sex education programmes to combine the importance of AIDS with a better grasp of the long-term impact of the disease on their countries.
The United States and South Africa recently pledged renewed efforts in the fight against AIDS. In December the international health funding agency UNITAID approved plans for a drug “patent pool” to help make newer HIV and AIDS medicines available at lower prices to poorer countries.
But Whiteside said a growing sense that AIDS is no longer an emergency was bound to feed politicians’ desire to be seen to be taking on new threats.
Climate change and the environment are the big issues now, and politicians may abandon the battle against AIDS, he said.
“At the moment, millions of Africans are on HIV/AIDS treatment courtesy of the Americans, the Global Fund and other donors. Those treatments have to be for life, so if we see a redeployment of funding, people are simply going to die.”
Whiteside pointed to “hyper-endemic” African countries like Malawi and Swaziland, where AIDS is so widespread that half of all women aged 25 to 29 have HIV or AIDS.
Prevention programmes are crucial in such countries, he said, but are often patchy and suffer from governments’ lack of leadership and cross-department, long-term vision.
Though clearly a personal and community disease, AIDS also threatens civil institutions like the health, agriculture and education sectors, which are needed to cut poverty, spur economic growth and raise living standards.
“We don’t seem to have got our head around prevention in the hyper-endemic countries,” he said. “We’ve still got new cases occurring and that’s ridiculous, it’s stupid, especially when you look ahead and see what that means in terms of the numbers of people that will need treatment. If we don’t put our effort into prevention, we’re likely to see more waves.”