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Africa and the Devastation
of the Human Species

By Ashok Row Kavi

mandelaaids.jpg - 12.96 K Former South African President Nelson Mandela has set up an AIDS organization to fight the disease that is ravaging his continent Imagine losing 250 million --fully one-fourth --of our one billion strong people within the next five years. Imagine the streets of our huge cities full of hungry orphans with armies of street children mugging passersby for a few morsels.

Imagine the busy national highways suddenly quiet and deserted not for want of trucks or bad roads but because there just are not drivers and cleaners to man them. The same goes for the lakhs of autorickshaws and taxis and trains keeping the urban artieries pumping life into our national life. Just suppose they suddenly came to a halt.

And then remember Nelson Mandela's words: "More Africans have been killed by this disease than all the wars waged in the world till now. We must not bicker about whether HIV leads to AIDS. We must do everything to stop this disease from devastating our people", he pleaded on 16th.July 2000 at the ululating crowds in a concluding speech of the 13th.International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa.

This was really the first International AIDS Conference held amidst the epidemic and it was nothing if not horrific. In neighboring Zambia, 30 per cent of the population is already gone with HIV prevalence of 40 per cent, Kenya is following closely behind. The whole belt of sub-Saharan Africa is being denuded of black people and one of the most scary headlines in the Morning Star of Durban was a screaming headline: "Blacks to become a minority in Africa".

Over 3,000 papers were read out at the three-day conference in an embattled International Conference Centre (ICC) with police guarding the venue so that hungry street children did not enter and rob the fat-cat delegates.

Some of them were scary, like one from America which warned that even oral sex was not safe any more. The new anti-virals which will prevent mother-to-child transmission are about to be distributed free by Pfizer but there is the danger of it being sold illegally by racketeers. So tough negotiations are on the cards before the infected mothers actually get the anti-virals.

Actually there are now two epidemics in all the countries facing this pandemic--that was real message that was being clearly delineated. The first one is the sudden mushrooming of new infections all over the new and old world and the second is the hordes of people who were infected five to 10 years ago now dying of AIDS. The two are a lethal cocktail which will devastate the young sexually active--and productive--populations around the world.

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In America and Europe, the new infections are among heterosexuals mostly from the Hispanic, Black, Gay and other minority populations while the deaths in the second epidemic are among younger gay men in the second wave of infected ones escaping the AIDS awareness programs of the gay communities in Europe and America.

In Asia, the two epidemics are merged into one--the deluge of over 25 million new infections among the young productive members of emerging industrial societies in China, India and South-East Asia and the continuing deaths from the first five or more million infections starting in the early 90s. India alone is expected to have 3.5 mllion HIV positive people now with figures doubling every 18 months. Speaking to the WHO's chief honcho epidemiologist, Stefano Lazzam, was chilling. Taking the scanty sentinel surveillance figures and statistics coming from India's rickety health system, the number of HIV infected people was calculated using sophisticated computer models to be "between 2.6 and 6.5 million".

Lazzam said that the final decision on the number of people infected "was left to the politicians so as not to panic people and attract intervention efforts without losing hope".

An Indian official, who I shall not name out of sheer shame, told a gathering of American USAID officials: "Even if we lose 25 million, we are one billion strong and can take it". He did not seem to realise that unlike the flu or even the plague, HIV selectively attacked the young, vigorous, energetic productive segment of the populace.

This was the segment which worked the fields, the factories, paid the most taxes and supported their families. A death of an earning member meant destitution for whole families and possibly clans. Sadly this worthy was not in touch with the epidemic.

Muslim fanatics crowed about how research among circumcised populations revealed that circumcision prevented HIV infections. It was rather clever manipulation of data. It must be remembered circumcisions did not help American gay men from getting infected and nor the fact that most of black Africa has major circumcision ceremonies for even non-Muslim populations without any proof to show it prevented HIV infection.

What was most worrying was the open support given by South African President Mbeke to what is called the "Duesberg Group". This group has suddenly become very popular in that it challenges that the HIV virus causes AIDS. Its basic premise is that the HIV virus has never been isolated and that all the tests for HIV actually only detect the antibodies to it and never the virus itself. This is analogous to the flat-earth-wallahs who say that the world photographed from outer space was an "optical illusion".

The open support given to this crackpot group at the inaugural ceremony by President Mbeki led to what is called the Durban Declaration signed by over 5,000 scientists, epidemiologists, virologists and social scientists. The Durban Declaration states clearly that there is "definite evidence that HIV causes AIDS" and that "it is imperative that efforts to fight the epidemic not flag at this crucial stage".

The declaration became like a badge of honor in the Conference as delegates looked beleaguered by the Mbeki brigades which talked of "poverty is a bigger killer", reminding one of Mrs. Indira Gandhi's pitting her populism against the West's environmental lobby.

Towards the end, it was thrilling to hear Mandela's speech asking everybody to stop bickering and get on with the job. He got a standing ovation for that. The Mbeki brigade sulked away as delegates streamed to the airports to get back home--and to work in the world's largest health prevention effort of stop the devastation of the human species.
Ashok Row Kavi is India's pioneer gay and AIDS activist

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