The world must pull together to halt the deadly progress of Aids

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If sheer numbers were any yardstick, the 13th International Conference on Aids would be certain of success before it started. In fact, the 5,000 learned papers to be submitted by 11,000 delegates from 178 countries at the deliberations opening in Durban, South Africa, tomorrow are simply the measure of the crisis posed by the disease.

If sheer numbers were any yardstick, the 13th International Conference on Aids would be certain of success before it started. In fact, the 5,000 learned papers to be submitted by 11,000 delegates from 178 countries at the deliberations opening in Durban, South Africa, tomorrow are simply the measure of the crisis posed by the disease.

Aids has outstripped polio, tuberculosis, smallpox, even malaria, to become the pandemic of our age. Last year the disease took nearly three million lives; around the world more than 34 million people are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, which causes Aids. In the worst-affected countries, such as South Africa and Zimbabwe, one in three 15-year-olds will die from the illness.

No "wonder vaccine" will be unveiled, no vast new infusion of money or resources will be pledged. Instead, the run-up to the meeting has been overshadowed by controversy over the theory of "dissident" scientists who dispute the link between HIV and Aids, suggesting that poverty and malnutrition are the root causes of what is essentially an African disease. Mainstream scientists have long been convinced that Aids is caused by HIV. But once again, the dissident argument has been disinterred, and partly embraced by the host of the conference, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa. Thus, a desperately serious medical problem risked being politicised - something that would make outsiders less inclined to co-operate in the search for a solution.

In fact, not only altruism but obvious self-interest dictates that we in the West do more to help. Aids strikes at the most vital sinews of a country, cutting down its young men and women in the prime of their productive and reproductive lives, undermining economies and leaving in its wake poverty, misery and lawlessness.

Such is the tightening grip of Aids that the White House has designated the disease a national security threat to the US, warning that it could fatally weaken states in whose stability Washington has a direct interest, not just in sub-Saharan Africa but in Asia and perhaps parts of Eastern Europe, too.

True, the leading drugs companies have agreed to cut the price of HIV and Aids medicines for developing countries, while the Clinton administration plans to double its international spending on the disease to $254m. But even that is only a start. The best estimates are that $3bn of new resources is needed to make a lasting inroad. Although that sounds an enormous sum, it represents only a single day's worth of health-care spending in America. Alas, the growing success of expensive treatments in controlling, if not eradicating, the disease in rich countries has lessened our sense of urgency at the deadly danger it poses in the developing world.

But poverty is not the only factor; if it were, South Africa, the richest state in sub-Saharan Africa, would not be among the worst-affected countries, with nearly 20 per cent of its adult population infected. One reason the debate is so complex is that - except for those unfortunate enough to be born with it - a changed lifestyle is enough to avoid it. One day, a cure will be found. Until then, the best hope lies in even wider campaigning for safer sex, better testing and treatment facilities, and help for children infected or orphaned by the disease. But that will be possible only if the West and the developing world work with, not against, each other.

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