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Special Section

AIDS conference sounds alarm over rich-poor divide


Children are the silent victims

July 4, 1998
Web posted at: 3:59 p.m. EDT (1959 GMT)

GENEVA (CNN) -- The theme of the 12th World AIDS Conference may have been "bridging the gap," but the message that emerged seemed just the opposite: the gap between the haves and the have-nots in this global epidemic is only widening.

The conference ended Friday with a call to arms to help extend the benefits of recent of medical breakthroughs to the majority of HIV-infected people, who live in the developing world and are mostly left without up-to-date medical treatment.

The United Nations' AIDS program warned this week that most of the 30.6 million people currently infected will die within 10 years if they do not receive proper treatment.

While increasing use in industrialized countries of expensive drug cocktails has raised life expectancy among some AIDS sufferers, such treatment remains little more than a dream for the more than 90 percent of victims who live in the developing world.

"Millions of children and adults are becoming infected, falling ill and dying without the barest essentials in medical treatment, counseling or social support," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in his address to the conference.

"Bridge the gap?" asked Dodji Mathey of Togo, one of the 13,000 participants at the week-long AIDS conference in this Swiss city. "I don't think so. It is not possible for the new medicines to ever get to Africa. We are too poor."

90 percent of those infected with HIV virus live in developing countries  

Treating just one HIV-infected person with the standard three-drug cocktail costs $10,000 or more. According to one estimate at the conference, making this protocol available worldwide would cost $36.5 billion, two-thirds of that expense coming from Africa.

According to the experts at the conference, the best hope for ending the global AIDS epidemic is development and testing of a reliable vaccine which would keep people from contracting that disease. But Dr. Robert Gallo, one of the discoverers of the virus, said that target was still some time away.

The inequities in treatment and care between rich and poor nations also affects children. In some rural areas of East Africa, for instance, four of every 10 children will have lost one of their parents by the age of 15.

mother and child
The latest research shows it is possible to reduce the incidence of mother-to-child HIV transmission  

Carol Bellamy, executive director of the U.N. Children's Fund, warned that the number of children who will ultimately lose one or both parents to AIDS is likely to reach a total of over 40 million by the year 2010.

Those whose parents are still alive are shouldering a sometimes unbearable burden if one or more parents is suffering from AIDS.

"Children of just eight years old are looking after dying parents as well as one, two or three younger siblings," said Charles Thumi, who works in a hospice in Kenya.

Last year alone, around 600,000 children contracted HIV, in most cases transmitted to them by their mothers in childbirth or via breast-feeding.

The U.N. AIDS program said it would start a pilot project to provide the effective anti-AIDS drug known as AZT to about 30,000 women in poor countries in Asia, Africa and South America.

France also pushed forward a controversial international plan for a global fund to supply AIDS drugs in the developing world.

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