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UN: AIDS Expert Warns Of Depopulation

As world leaders prepare for a special United Nations General Assembly session on HIV/AIDS next month, a senior U.S. expert on the disease suggests that the most pressing concern may be stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS among younger women, a development that threatens to depopulate large areas of Africa. Our correspondent K.P. Foley has this report on the issue.

Washington, 22 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations is preparing for a special General Assembly session next month on the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and a senior U.S. expert on the disease says one of the issues that must be addressed is how to stop the spread of the illness among younger women.

Paul Delay, the director of HIV/AIDS programs for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the deaths of women early in their childbearing years is causing negative population growth in at least three African countries -- Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

Delay told Washington reporters that in Africa, on average, women become infected by the virus (Human Immune Deficiency Virus -- HIV) about ten years before men. He says most women who contract HIV do so before age 25. They then die from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome -- AIDS -- about ten years earlier than men.

Delay said it is these early deaths of women that are most responsible for negative population growth.

"By negative population growth we're talking about a replacement of less than two. That means that you have less then two children per family."

The World Health Organization says about 36 million people throughout the world are living with HIV/AIDS. About three million people worldwide died from AIDS last year. About 70 percent of the HIV/AIDS victims live in sub-Saharan Africa.

However, in its annual report on the epidemic issued earlier this year, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) warned of an acceleration of HIV/AIDS in the former Soviet Union, particularly in Russia and Ukraine. But unlike Africa, where the main method of transmission for the disease is sexual contact, experts blame the recent spread in the former Soviet Union on the sharing of contaminated needles by users of illegal drugs.

The General Assembly will convene its special session from 25-27 June. The UN says the purpose of the special session will be to intensify international action to fight the epidemic and to mobilize the resources needed.

Delay said that while the global spread of HIV/AIDS began about 20 years ago, "in the last two to three years things have gotten so bad that it's hard to ignore the extent of the epidemic." However, he also said that governments and private donors are making more money available to fight the disease now.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan is hoping the special session will yield even greater financial commitments. He has called for establishment of a $7 billion anti-AIDS fund.

Delay, however, said it will take more than money to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. He said that if the political will is lacking, then "all the assistance in the world is useless." He also said people must still overcome their reluctance to confront the pandemic.

"One of the things we find is that nobody, nobody likes to talk about AIDS. Nobody's infected. Nobody's ever died of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. I'm exaggerating, but that's still the philosophy in many parts of the continent and that's not unique to Africa. That's still happening in this country and Europe and in Asia and in Latin America."

The UN says the special session next month will address that issue as well.