Young bear the brunt as Aids spreads through the world on a biblical scale

WE THOUGHT we had Aids beaten. The worst infectious disease of modern times was in retreat in the West and there were signs that it had peaked in parts of the developing world. New drug combinations had brought spectacular improvements in survival, adding to the impression that a global crisis had been averted.

How wrong we were. In 1998, another 5.8 million people have joined the legions infected with the virus, half of them aged under 25. Today, more than 33 million people across the planet are carrying the disease and the speed at which it spreads shows no sign of slowing. Villages, towns and countries face ruin on a biblical scale.

In Western Europe, the incidence of new Aids cases began falling in 1995 as new drug cocktails improved survival. In the US, the number of people dying from Aids dropped by two-thirds between 1995 and 1997, testimony to the success of the drugs.

But that therapeutic advance has bred complacency on prevention. The dramatic rises in HIV infection in the early Eighties were reversed by the late Eighties because of campaigns that increased condom use among gay men from zero to 50 per cent. But over the past decade, the number of new HIV infections in North America and Western Europe has failed to fall further, with close to 75,000 acquiring the virus this year.

Today almost 1.4 million people in the region are living with HIV and the total is growing because of improved survival, imposing an increasing burden on health services.

In the UK, the drug bill alone is expected to grow to pounds 300m by 2002.

Across the world it is the young who are taking the brunt of the epidemic - an estimated 40 million teenagers and adolescents will have contracted the virus by 2030.

The worst hit region is sub-Saharan Africa, where 70 per cent of all new infections and 80 per cent of the deaths occur. In four countries - Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Swaziland - more than one in five adults is now infected with HIV.

"If we do not invest in HIV prevention today we will have to invest in food aid tomorrow," Peter Piot, executive director of UNAids, the world Aids campaign, said yesterday as the latest figures were released.

Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, declared the picture the statistics revealed "truly terrible" and said gains in life expectancy and infant mortality were being wiped out. "This is a further obstacle to Africa's liberation and development," she said.

There is, however, cause for hope. Although countries of the developing world will never be able to afford the expensive drug cocktails now saving lives in the West - if only 25 per cent of Malawi's HIV-infected population was prescribed the drugs it would consume 84 per cent of the country's Gross Domestic Product - there are other measures that have been proved to work.

In Uganda, the first African country to be ravaged by Aids in the Eighties, infections among pregnant women have fallen from 30 per cent to 10 per cent. As families have watched their breadwinners suffer a lingering and distressing death, the messages about safe sex have got through.

Backed by political and religious leaders, there has been a huge increase in condom use, a reduction in the number of sexual partners and a postponement by two years of the age at first intercourse.

In Tanzania, studies have shown that early treatment of sexually transmitted infections with cheap antibiotics cuts the spread of HIV by almost half.

In Senegal in west Africa, where Aids struck later than in east and southern Africa, 66 per cent of men now use condoms, compared with less than 5 per cent at the start of the decade, which has prevented the epidemic taking off.

Young women, who are often infected by older men, are at greatest risk. The first sexual experience of between a third and a half of all girls is from coercion or violence. "That alone is bad enough, but with Aids it becomes a lethal thing," said Mr Piot.

He added: "We have to do something about older men but their behaviour is the most difficult to change. It requires a major cultural shift."

The prospect of an Aids vaccine remains a distant hope. One candidate is on trial in the US and is about to be tested in Thailand, and several others are in the pipeline, but no product will be available for at least four to five years. Ms Short said: "Because Aids kills poor people, the market will not bring a vaccine. Science suggests it is possible... the World Bank is involved - but we must mobilise countries to put money in."

Until a vaccine is developed, condoms and sex education remain the best defence. The music television channel, MTV, has joined forces with UNAids and is to broadcast an Aids series fronted by the British pop star George Michael to a billion viewers round the world.

William Roedy, the president of MTV Networks International, said: "We try to use the influence of pop culture to deliver a message. Condoms are cool, and using them is cooler. We want to make it trendy, hip and cool to use condoms."

Even here, commercial imperatives interfere with humanitarian measures.

Although pharmaceutical companies have donated huge sums in drugs to help to eliminate diseases such as tuberculosis from the developing world, no condom company wishes to be associated with the mass supply of cheap sheaths because of the damage it could do to sales at home.

"Condoms have got to be affordable," said Ms Short. "That means in many cases they must be subsidised."

Leading article,

Review page 3

Nigel Wrench, Review page 8

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Android App Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises in the...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum