Fund AIDS Fight Not Foreign Debts, Says UN Adviser
Sat Aug 31, 3:40 PM ET
By Wambui Chege
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - African governments should fund programs to combat HIV before they service foreign debts, U.N. special adviser Jeffrey Sachs said on Saturday at an Earth Summit panel discussion.
Sachs, who is director of the Center for International Development at Harvard University and special adviser on AIDS to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said Western and African governments were doing too little to fight the pandemic.
"Defend your people," Sachs told participants at the panel discussion in Johannesburg, which is part of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, also known as the Earth Summit.
"It's untenable to be paying debt that could be used to fight the pandemic. It's imperative to channel those funds to AIDS, given this holocaust," he said.
The United Nations ( news - web sites) has estimated that 40 million Africans were living with HIV or AIDS by the end of 2001, with the disease still spreading fast across the continent.
"We've heard a lot about the vicious cycle of poverty, but it's much more than a vicious cycle. There's a silent holocaust under way in this region, and the world is not recognizing it," Sachs said.
Health has been identified as one of five key areas for the Earth Summit, alongside energy, water, agriculture and biodiversity.
But as delegates haggle over how best to raise living standards without further damage to the environment, activists are complaining that AIDS, now the single biggest killer in Africa, has taken a back seat.
"Shame on the rich countries for daring to talk about sustainable development when millions of people are dying because they have not addressed the (AIDS) issue," Sachs said.
He did not single out South Africa's government or President Thabo Mbeki, the summit's host, who has refused to sanction a broad drugs-based war on AIDS.
But he said African governments were doing too little to protect their people.
Southern Africa is at the epicenter of the global AIDS pandemic. Regional powerhouse South Africa has the world's highest number of HIV-positive people. An estimated one in nine or 4.7 million people are infected with the virus.
Elsewhere, in neighboring Botswana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Swaziland, more than one-third of the adult population is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In some countries, life expectancy has dropped to 40 years.
The pandemic has exacerbated a biting food shortage in the region. In many parts of the continent, food production, health and education are all in jeopardy as the disease cuts down many people in the prime of their life.