AIDS Surging In South Africa - 25% Rates In Sub-Saharan Africa

JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - South Africa has one of the world's fastest-growing epidemics of the human immunodeficiency virus, the precursor to the deadly AIDS, according to a report released here Monday.
The country this year notched up more than half of the new HIV infections in the world's worst infected area, sub-Saharan Africa, according to the head of the United Nations program on HIV/AIDS, Peter Piot.
About 70 percent of people infected with HIV this year were in sub-Saharan Africa, where four-fifths of all Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) deaths occurred in 1998, according to UNAIDS statistics.
The U.N. program also estimates that South Africa has more HIV-infected people than in any other country, except India.
Addressing a press briefing ahead of World AIDS Day on December 1, Piot warned that southern Africa is facing an "unprecedented emergency" as the number of people infected with the virus climbs at "alarming" rates.
This year, 1.4 million people between the ages of 15 and 49, the most sexually active age group, were infected with HIV in the nine countries which make up southern Africa, he said.
Piot said the four worst affected countries in the region were Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, where between 20 and 26 percent of people aged 15-49 were living with HIV or AIDS.
But South Africa is 'catching up,' he said.
Piot added: 'It is not by chance Africa is so much affected by this epidemic, because the driving forces of this epidemic are poverty, migration (and) conflict.'
The first U.N.-sponsored South African Human Development Report, also released at the briefing, said that projections suggested the epidemic would infect almost 25 percent of South Africa's population by 2010.
By that year, life expectancy is expected to drop from 68.2 to 48 years.
The report said the epidemic was fueled by apartheid's legacy of the migrant labor system, under which sexually transmitted diseases flourish, and the subordinate status of women in the country.
According to a separate Department of Health report, "South Africa's epidemic has been one of the last to develop in Africa, because of this country's most southerly position on the continent.
"However, the epidemic is now growing rapidly with over 1,500 people becoming infected each day."
Welfare and Population Development Minister Geraldine Fraser Moleketi reacted to criticism that the government had been slow in acting on the AIDS threat saying it was never 'too late.'
She said: 'We are looking at taking on this battle in every way.'
One of the government's first attempts at spreading awareness about AIDS in South Africa was a controversial play, "Sarafina 2," which cost 14 million rand (now more than $2 million).
The production, canceled in 1996, was widely criticized for imparting little information about the virus and is currently under investigation in an attempt to recoup the EU funds allocated to it.
In September Deputy President Thabo Mbeki launched the government AIDS Action Plan, to start with an awareness campaign for which 80 million rand (14 million dollars) has been budgeted.
Piot, who said his decision to commemorate World AIDS Day in South Africa was an indication of the seriousness of the problem in the region, said the epidemic can and must be fought.
"These projections suppose that we don't act, but that would be immoral and irresponsible," he said.