Independent On-Line, 02 December 2002, World unites in marking Aids day

Millions of people around the globe marked World Aids Day on Sunday with marches and prayers amid grim statistics that show the epidemic outpacing all efforts to control it.

China, officials instructed one million students to launch a national Aids awareness campaign, while in Britain health experts warned of a startling spike in new infections. In South Africa - the country worst hit by the disease - activists held a mass funeral for babies.

"We pay tribute to all the children who have passed away in our care," said Jackie Schoeman of the Cotlands Baby Sanctuary, which held a ceremony on Sunday in
Johannesburg to inter the cremated ashes of some of the littlest victims.

Sunday's World Aids Day activities highlight how dangerously the disease has spread since it was first detected among homosexual men in the United States in 1981.

Estimates released by the United Nations last week indicate that more than 40 million people worldwide are infected with HIV, the virus which causes Aids, the vast majority of them in sub-Saharan

Aids will have killed 3,1 million people by the end of this year, while five million more will have been infected, UNAids said in its report.

Eastern Europe and Central Asia, with 1,2 million cases, show the fastest-growing number of cases, while officials fear China and India are Aids time bombs.

Worldwide, half of those infected are now women, the report says, meaning more babies could become infected through their mothers.

In New York City, where the gay community suffered the first major US outbreak of Aids more than 20 years ago, a World Aids Day rally emphasised the disease's spread to every community.

"It's time to stop the denial, the partying and the pretension: Aids kills gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight people," said Doneley Meris, who helps run mental health and social services for people living with HIV and Aids.

And in
San Francisco, where the gay community was also devastated by the disease, Aids activists honoured victims of the deadly illness with a ceremony at Golden Gate Park's National Aids Memorial Grove.

To see what damage Aids can do, one has only to look at
Southern Africa, where almost 30 million people are already infected with the disease.

Food output is falling because of drought and the fact that agricultural workers are dying.

Millions of children have been orphaned by the disease. Cemetery space is running out, average life expectancy is falling and billions of dollars are being chopped from the region's already fragile economies.

"There is no longer a distinction between those living with HIV/Aids and those who are not," South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma said in the government's official World Aids Day speech yesterday. "We are all living with the disease."

Treatment, limited to expensive cocktails of antiretroviral drugs, reaches only a tiny handful of Aids sufferers who need it.

's Great Hall of the People, China's political centre, the government launched a national campaign for students to spread into rural areas to educate people about HIV/Aids.

In a sign that developed countries may be in for another Aids shock after seeing new cases decline in recent years, British officials said this week that the country was likely to have a 20 percent increase in new HIV cases this year - a number twice that reported at the end of the 1990s.

Officials point to some hopeful signs, including some successful Aids awareness campaigns in
Africa and moves by drug companies to slash the price of anti-Aids drugs. But treatment is always going to be the most expensive option.

UNAids calculates that by 2007 the world will have to find about $15 billion (R139 million) a year to treat Aids in low and middle income countries - but contributions to the new Global Fund designed to spearhead anti-Aids work are lagging. - Reuters