New hope for bringing Africa out of AIDS shadow

One of the tragic stories of our times is the marginalization of Africa. "Marginalization" is one of those words diplomats and economists use when they mean something's fallen off their screens and been forgotten.

With Africa's emergence from colonial rule into independence 40 years ago, hopes were high that the continent, with its untapped natural resources, would blossom economically and its people would flourish.

It hasn't happened.

During the first four decades of African independence, American foreign policymakers were preoccupied with the cold war and regions that were deemed more critical in the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.

After the cold war, Africa continued to have a low priority in Washington. Wars and coups attracted some attention from the former colonial powers - Belgium, France, Portugal, and Britain - that formerly ruled chunks of the continent, but foreign aid from the West to Africa was but a trickle. Africa languished, while the economies of Asia and Latin America prospered. South Africa, the most industrialized country on the continent, was once seen as the engine that might galvanize black Africa, but South Africa after desegregation has had its own problems meeting the expectations of its black population.

As if this were not sad enough, Africa has been overtaken by an AIDS epidemic that has cast it into what one African leader calls a "long night of darkness." US Secretary of State Colin Powell says it is a challenge "bigger than the war on terrorism."

Of the 40 million people in the world afflicted with AIDS, 30 million - three quarters of them - live in Africa. Thus a tragedy is unfolding almost incomprehensible in its scale.

Unless stemmed, AIDS seems likely to eliminate an entire generation of otherwise productive Africans. Aside from the human and social anguish of this, the economic impact will be grim and the costs to society great. Parents who die leave orphaned children to be cared for. The number of orphaned in Africa is already pushing 35 million, and rising fast. An AIDS epidemic of this size has a debilitating impact on the ability of governments to cope and economies to grow. Some African countries estimate that economic output will be cut by 30 percent as a result of AIDS.

Thus President Bush's State of the Union commitment to spend $15 billion over the next five years for AIDS treatment and relief in Africa brings a glimmer of light to a dark problem. The US program will provide drugs for the infected, care for the suffering and orphans, and an education program that one hopes will reduce the incidence of AIDS.

The problem remains immense. The United Nations estimates that within a couple of years, the cost of combating AIDS in Africa will be more than $10 billion annually. The new US commitment falls far short of that, but is nonetheless welcome because the US government, like that of South Africa, has been criticized for not taking AIDS in Africa seriously enough and not doing enough to combat it. Perhaps others among the world's affluent nations will now do more to tackle a problem that has ramifications far beyond Africa's shores.

Insofar as medical treatment is concerned, the problem has been not only a shortage of the expensive antiretroviral drugs used to treat patients, but a shortage of the medical infrastructure needed to administer them. However, as Mr. Bush noted, the cost of these drugs has been steadily declining from a sky-high $12,000 a year to less than $300 a year. That's still more than many Africans earn in a year, but as Bush declared: "As our nation moves troops and builds alliances to make our world safer, we must also remember our calling, as a blessed country, to make this world better."

While Africa's AIDS problem cries for a solution, there are serious AIDS challenges elsewhere in the world. Outside Africa, Haiti has the highest rate of infection and will be a recipient of help under the Bush program. But India has some four million cases. China has 1 million. The number of Russians infected with the virus that leads to AIDS is believed to be around 1 million, and some estimates suggest the figure could be 5 million by 2007.

South Africa's Nelson Mandela says AIDS has killed more people than all previous wars. As he proclaims: "We must not continue to be debating, to be arguing, when people are dying."

John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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