UNITED NATIONS warns of complacency in West as AIDS spreads

Thursday, May 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GENEVA (AP) _ Poorer nations in Africa and Asia are slowing the spread of HIV and AIDS, but a mix of complacency and sophisticated medical treatment have undermined prevention campaigns in the United States and Western Europe, a top U.N. official said Thursday.

Peter Piot, head of UNAIDS, said the spread of the disease, first reported in a U.S. government bulletin on June 5, 1981, had surpassed even the worst predictions.

``I never imagined I was looking at the first sign of an epidemic that in just 20 years would have infected 60 million people, killed 22 million and achieved the status of the most devastating epidemic in human history,'' Piot told a meeting of the UNAIDS coordinating board.

The board, which meets through Friday, is mapping out strategy for 29 U.N. agencies that have joined forces to fight the disease.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for a special global fund of up to $10 billion to help countries cope with the health and economic costs of AIDS, but so far only the United States has offered money _ $200 million.

Vigorous national campaigns have started to stem the spread of the disease in badly affected countries, he said. New infections among young people, the critical barometer, are fewer in such nations as Uganda, South Africa, Cambodia and the Bahamas.

Though treatment and therapy have progressed in North America and Western Europe, Piot said, the regions are showing ``a clear failure'' in prevention efforts. ``That is certainly not a model to follow,'' he said.

About 40 million humans are living with the virus, the vast majority unaware they are infected or with no access to care or support. An estimated 15,000 people are infected each day, said Mark Stirling, the AIDS program coordinator of the U.N. Children's Fund.

Roughly 13 million children have been orphaned by the disease. This is expected to grow to 40 million in the next nine years _ equivalent to the number of children in the entire United States.

Last year, more than 600,000 children were infected by their mothers during pregnancy, birth or breast-feeding. In Africa alone last year, nearly 1 million children lost their teachers to AIDS, Stirling said.

Piot was reluctant to predict the future spread of AIDS, saying much depends on China and India, where a 1 percent infection rate would equal the entire population of some African countries. But despite the personal misery and national catastrophes behind the figures, he saw room for hope.

There is unprecedented political commitment to tackle the disease _ as evidenced by numerous regional summits and a special U.N. General Assembly session to be held in June. But Piot said this needed to be matched by resources as basic as condom distribution in developing countries.

``Where we will be in the next 20 years depends entirely on how we respond to the epidemic today,'' Piot said. ``If 20 years ago, we had done what we had to do, we wouldn't be in the situation we are now.''