South Africa's Growing
HIV Catastrophe -22%
By Alex Kirby
Environment Correspondent
BBC News
Tackling HIV will be the most urgent task facing President-elect Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, according to a respected US conservation group.
The group, the Worldwatch Institute of Washington DC, says South Africa's HIV epidemic is one of the world's fastest-growing, and is "engulfing" the country.
It says antenatal clinic surveys conducted in April show 22% of the population are infected, compared with an estimate in late 1997 of 14%.
This, the Institute says, means that "barring a medical miracle, one out of every five adults will die within the next decade".
Economic impact
And with young adults showing the highest infection rates, "an unprecedented social tragedy is beginning to translate into an economic disaster".
The Institute says the virus is poised to savagely reduce South Africa's working-age population.
"In the predominantly black and largely impoverished province of Kwazulu-Natal, one in three adults is thought to be infected.
"At the University of Durban-Westville in Kwazulu-Natal, 25% of the student body recently tested positive for HIV - a dismal prospect for the nation's best and brightest.
"Rising costs for insuring the health of workers are shrinking or even eliminating company profit margins, forcing some into the red.
"Countries where labour forces have such high infection levels will find it increasingly difficult to attract foreign investment."
Life expectancy plummets
The Institute says 100,000 children were orphaned by Aids in South Africa in 1998 alone.
And it notes a "precipitous" drop in life expectancy.
"As recently as 1990, life expectancy in South Africa stood at 59 years, among the highest in Africa.
"But deaths from AIDS are expected to drive it below 40 years by 2010."
Dr Robert Shell, director of the Population Rsearch Unit at Rhodes University, says the 22% infection figure is an under-estimate.
"Any woman using any kind of contraceptive device will be excluded from the survey.
"And we are seeing some signs of infection among the 5-14 age group, caused by people who want to have sex with virgins."
He described HIV in sub-Saharan Africa as "not an epidemic, but a pandemic. And South Africa is the epicentre".
"For a variety of reasons, the government here ends up denying what is happening. It's time for the US cavalry."