Economies of Africa will be ravaged by Aids: In places population is declining, and the victims belong to economically vital groups, writes Richard Dowden, Africa Editor

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The Independent Online
AIDS will reduce or even reverse the rapid population growth rate in parts of Africa but experts disagree on how it will affect total numbers of people. They agree, however, that even if Aids reduces population, it will reduce economic output even more and worsen rather than solve the problems of hunger and development.

Researchers on Aids and population in Africa agree that figures from the worst affected parts of Africa show the number of deaths will soon exceed the number of births and that population will be reduced there. They are divided over how widespread these regions will be. Professor Roy Anderson, the head of the Biology Department of Imperial College, London University, says that in parts of Africa HIV infection has reached 30 per cent and this means the population growth rate will be reduced from about 3 per cent to zero within two decades.

'People are refusing to accept the magnitude of this problem,' Professor Anderson said yesterday. 'There is no region yet where the spread of Aids has slowed. There are reports that it may have done in some areas but I personally have not seen any data to prove it. I have just returned from Nairobi where in a major hospital sero (HIV) prevalence in the maternity ward was 11 per cent last year and this year it is 15 per cent.'

His conclusions are disputed by other experts who believe that while population decline may occur in some areas it is not yet possible to draw conclusions for the whole continent. David Nabarro, the chief health and population adviser at the Overseas Development Administration, said yesterday: 'Professor Anderson is in the guesstimate zone based on what could happen if . . . The data on such suppositions are very slim indeed. We just don't know enough to produce a robust prediction.'

Mr Nabarro said: 'There may be a relatively small number of locations, mostly large towns and small sections within those towns, where there may be an excess of deaths over births but all the evidence to date suggests that the prevalence of HIV is very patchy. If there is a sharp decline we believe it will be in restricted areas. Our expectation is that the plateau will be reached at a level below that associated with population decline.'

Professor Anderson agrees the pattern of spread will not be uniform. But it has already reached very alarming proportions and the future is gloomy unless huge resources are directed to education. 'We know Aids is a virus with the capacity to wipe out populations. Whether it will or not depends on the pattern of sexual behaviour within groups and the pattern of mixing between groups.'

Tony Barnett of the School of Development Studies at East Anglia University says that there will be declines of population in some areas but it is impossible to make more than an informed guess on what will happen overall.

'It depends upon the quality of the data in the models and the data is not very good . . . you need to know rates of sexual partner change within groups and whether people are having sex outside the group. Without that kind of information it is difficult to make projections and that sort of information is very difficult to come by,' said Dr Barnett.

All experts agree that the common perception that Aids will reduce population and that will somehow reduce the numbers of hungry people in Africa is a myth. Aids kills off those between 14 and 50, the most economically active, and leaves the very young and the very old, those most dependent. There are already a large number of orphans in the most severely affected areas and for every consumer who dies of Aids, three or four producers also die.

A recent paper prepared for the World Bank on the effects of Aids on economic production in Africa predicts a 22 per cent decline in Gross Domestic Product in a typical African country. Projecting data from 35 sub-Saharan African countries the researchers, Mead Over and Peter Way, found that by 2015 there were still more births than deaths but that economic growth rates were reduced by two per cent. 'By 2015 Aids has reduced the GDP of this typical African country by dollars 12bn ( pounds 6.3bn) to dollars 13bn, or approximately a year and a half's production.'

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