Two years ago, during the hugely successful International AIDS
Conference in Durban, South Africa, the congress was abuzz with
the sense that the worst was apparently over for Africa as far as
the AIDS pandemic was concerned.
Models of how many patients the virus could infect -- as high as
35 percent of adults in the nation of Botswana -- indicated the
peak had been reached, and although the situation in the
sub-Saharan area was grave, recovery might be on the horizon.
Today, at the just completed 14th International AIDS Conference
in Barcelona, Spain, researchers said they now realize the
epidemic has, in fact, worsened in Africa. New new studies
foreshadow the expanding epidemic spreading into Eastern Europe,
the Caribbean and the massive populations of India and China --
where in numbers alone, the epidemic could double in size in just
a few years.
"We made a lot of mistakes in calculating the extent of the
epidemic and how it could grow," admitted Dr. Stephano Vella, the
outgoing president of the International AIDS Society, the
organization that sponsored the Durban and Barcelona meetings.
"We've been surprised by these new figures."
Compiled by the Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS, the new
statistics show even though no one thought the situation in
Botswana could get worse, it had. Latest figures estimate 39
percent of the adults are infected in the country.
"The figures from Botswana are really troubling," said Dr. Eugene
McCray, director of the global AIDS program of the National
Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention of the Centers of Disease
Control and Prevention, Atlanta.
Most upsetting, of all the nations in Africa, Botswana has
considerable resources -- it is a leading world exporter of
diamonds, major portions of its population have access to
reasonable medical treatment, anti-AIDS messages are supported by
top officials and the country is awash in condoms to prevent
transmission of the disease.
"Despite all this," McCray told United Press International, "the
rates in Botswana went up."
Another piece of bad news arrived via reports from West Africa.
For years, that area of the continent had been assumed to have a
stable epidemic with infection rates in the 3 percent to 5
In 2001, the rates have jumped to double digits in Cameroon and
the Central African Republic. An estimated 9.7 percent of adults
in Cote d'Ivoire and 6.5 percent in Nigeria are infected -- and
Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa, so that translates
to 3.5 million people.
"We don't know why the numbers have jumped so quickly in West
Africa," McCray said. He suggested it may be due to previous
underreporting. Vella said displacement due to regional conflicts
could have played a role as well.
In Africa, the epidemic continues to be spread by heterosexual
contacts -- with more and more women becoming infected rather
than equal numbers of both sexes. In Eastern Europe and the
republics that used to make up the Soviet Union, the epidemic is
being spread through injecting drug users.
In China, drug use and supplies of tainted blood have delivered
AIDS with sudden impact. In India, another area where sexual
contact spreads the disease, researchers cite dense slum brothels
of the urban centers of the country as the incubator of the
outbreak that has now spread to villages.
"AIDS is everywhere in India," Vella said. "It will be a
catastrophe. The numbers of people are immense."
World Bank officials predict that without major intervention in
India more than 13 million people could be infected with the
virus that causes AIDS by 2010.
McCray said new studies have shown that in places such as China
where the epidemic has found a solid foothold, the risk of rapid
spread is great, in part due to almost complete lack of knowledge
about the disease and how is passes from one person to another in
the most vulnerable populations.
The UNAIDS figures predict by the year 2020, AIDS will claim the
lives of 68 million more people in the 45 countries of the world
where the disease is most prevalent, mainly in the nations of
Africa. The disease has already killed more than 20 milion people
Dr. Ron Valdiserri, deputy director of the National Center for
HIV, STD and TB Prevention, said although some people were
surprised by the numbers, "most epidemiologists were not. We have
seen infection rates greater than the rate in Botswana." He noted
in the 1980s, the infection rate among gay men in San Francisco
reached more than 60 percent."
The concern about China and India, Valdiserri said, "is that we
know that once AIDS is introduced into an area that the spread of
it can be explosive." But "these predictions are not inevitable.
If we provide more focused attention on scaling up prevention
programs as well as scaling up treatment access we could change
the pattern," he said.
Two years ago, Vella noted, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS,
Tuberculosis and Malaria did not exist. Now it is beginning to
use the $2.8 billion already promised by the world's wealthy
nations to begin a series of treatment programs in the hardest
"This is nothing like enough," said Richard Feachum, head of the
global fund, which is a United Nations agency. Estimates are that
$10 billion a year will be needed to fight the disease on a
Valdiserri said the CDC is working in China and India to try to
check the epidemic before it goes out of control. He said a few
steps are showing promise including efforts by commercial sex
workers in India to negotiate with male clients to use condoms to
prevent AIDS transmission.
"I think that we have seen in Barcelona a number of proposals and
ideas that taken together could impact and slow the epidemic,"
Valdiserri said. "If we don't take these steps, the epidemic will
become that freight train racing out of control down the tracks."