News24, 30 November 2002, Africa makes fragile progress

Addis Ababa - Progress, fragile but real, has been made in sub-Saharan Africa's fight against Aids, the head of the UN specialist agency UNAids said on Saturday, ahead of World Aids Day, warning that the continent was still far from having subdued the ravaging epidemic.

UNAids executive director Peter Piot said "modest progress" had been made in parts of southern and eastern Africa, noting in particular South Africa and Zambia, and parts of Ethiopia and Tanzania.

"We now have an increasing number of countries in the region where less people have become infected with HIV than last year, and that is good news", Piot said at a press conference at African Union headquarters here a day before World Aids Day.

On the continent, where nearly 30m people are infected with the human immune-deficiency virus (HIV) and 2.4m people have died of Aids-related causes this year, progress is measured in relative terms.

"It's far too early to cry victory because this will require a sustained effort everywhere," Piot said.

Kingsley Amoako, executive director of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), said the widespread epidemic remains "the greatest challenge" for the continent.

"Unless we have a vaccine or something miraculous happens, we have to accept that all of these people are going to die," he said.

But, Piot said that despite increasing investment in medical research a cure for Aids will not likely be found "in the near future".

Three African nations - Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa - along with India have the dubious distinction of being home to the greatest numbers of HIV-positive people, in absolute numbers.

In four other sub-Saharan countries, more than 30% of the adult population now have HIV, a rate that experts had once deemed impossible.

These countries - Botswana with an infection rate of 38.8%; Lesotho with 31%; Swaziland with 33.4% and Zimbabwe with 33.7% - have brought life expectancy back to that of a century ago.

But anti-viral drugs remain expensive and inaccessible in most of the world, and poor Africa is getting poorer and less able to ensure access to health care for its infected populations.

The ECA estimates that in some African countries the gross domestic product (GDP) will actually decline by 15%, Amoako said. - Sapa-AFP