The latest figures on the global AIDS epidemic are frightening beyond expectations. A country-by-country analysis by the United Nations AIDS program has found that H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, is running wild through many parts of the developing world, especially the impoverished nations of Africa south of the Sahara. The virus has infected one in four adults in Botswana and Zimbabwe, and almost one in five adults in several other African countries. Most do not even know they harbor the virus, but virtually all are doomed unless modern science or their own beleaguered governments can pull off some miracle not yet in sight. As it stands now, the AIDS pandemic is destined to rival the Black Death of the Middle Ages and the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 as a global horror.
Unfortunately, there are no sure-fire weapons to bring the epidemic under control. Drugs to treat the disease have become increasingly effective. But they are prohibitively expensive for poor countries where the virus is most prevalent. Although it is heartening that several drug companies are planning huge price cuts for poor nations, even that will leave the cost too high for most Africans.
Prevention programs stressing health education and condom use have helped some countries slow transmission of the virus. But the best hope would be a vaccine to prevent infection. The first full-scale clinical trial of an AIDS vaccine is just getting under way in the United States and Thailand, but many experts believe the vaccine being tested is not very promising. The message in the latest U.N. estimates is that efforts to secure an effective vaccine must be broadened and greatly intensified. Otherwise, today's shockingly high H.I.V. infection rates will only get worse.