Aids is world's number one killer infection

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The Independent Online
AIDS CAUSES more deaths than any other infectious disease, the United Nations revealed last week. And the epidemic, the impact of which is beginning to rival the Black Death - is still nowhere near reaching its peak.

Population growth in some African countries, booming only a few years ago, will soon cease as death rates from the disease soar. In some countries a quarter of people are HIV positive, and these increasingly include middle-class professionals - the doctors, teachers, engineers and administrators trying to raise their countries' living standards.

The UN report, by the World Health Organisation, reveals that Aids became the world's deadliest infectious disease over the past year, displacing tuberculosis. It is now the fourth biggest killer in the world - after non-infectious heart disease, strokes, and acute respiratory diseases - leading to 2.3 million deaths worldwide in 1998.

"Aids has been with us for just 20 years and is already killing more people than any other infectious disease," said Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, the specialist UN agency in charge of fighting the epidemic. He added: "It is the most formidable pathogen to confront modern medicine."

Only two years ago, Aids was ninth among the world's killer diseases but since then it has overtaken TB, malaria, diarrhoea (a major cause of death among children in the Third World), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and cancers of the lung, bronchus and trachea.

Although new drugs and other measures seem to be getting on top of Aids in western countries, the condition is spreading out of control in the Third World. The WHO report said it is now the biggest single cause of death in Africa. One quarter of the people of Zimbabwe and Botswana are now HIV positive, and one in five of the population suffers similarly in Namibia, Zambia and Swaziland. (In the US the figure is 0.7 per cent, while in west Europe it is 0.23 per cent).

Another report, by the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, says death rates are rising so fast in Zimbabwe, as a consequence of the disease, that the once-rapid population growth will come to a halt in less than three years. It adds that it expects Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Swaziland to suffer a similar fate soon afterwards.

By 2005, according to the World Bank, half of all skilled people in Malawi's towns and cities will have perished and nearly 15,000 teachers are expected to die from the disease in Tanzania by 2010. The epidemic in these countries is beginning to rival the Black Death, which killed 20 million people in 14th-century Europe.