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Africa's Deadly Epidemic

Readers of The New York Times got a sobering view of the world in this morning's paper. It's a map of the world with each country shaded to indicate the estimated percentage of people in each country, ages 15 to 49, suffering from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS.

Africa is the Dark Continen—not because Europeans don't understand it, but because the map is shaded dark red where the prevalence of AIDS is highest. In certain areas of Africa one in four adults is infected with the virus that causes AIDS.
The map gives a visual reminder that the AIDS epidemic is not over, that it is rapidly becoming one of the worst and most deadly epidemics in history, a rival to the bubonic plague and influenza.

The United Nations has prepared the first country-by-country analysis of the disease, and the findings are sobering.

According to the report, Zimbabwe is the country most affected. Nearly 26 percent of all adults in that country are believed to be infected. Thirty-two percent of pregnant women in Zimbabwe are believed to be infected. Most will breast-feed. One way or another, these mothers are likely to pass the infection on to their children.

Not coincidentally, the AIDS epidemic is at its worst in areas where medical facilities are scarce, where education is limited, where family planning is not practiced, where new experimental drug treatments are either unavailable or else impossibly expensive—and where prevention is almost unknown.

AIDS in Africa is transmitted chiefly through intercourse with an infected partner of the opposite sex, or from mother to child. So any effort to combat the spread of AIDS must confront the following:

  • Traditional attitudes about masculinity and fatherhood
  • The economic realities of prostitution
  • The physical realities of motherhood.
Too often, however, no effort is made at all.

The findings remind us what happens when AIDS—or any epidemic —goes ignored and unchecked for too long. For nearly 20 years, AIDS in Africa has been considered, at best, as "somebody else's problem." Today in East Africa, 40 percent of children have lost their mothers or both parents to AIDS.

This means that a whole generation of Africans will be growing up hungry, angry, and poor. That is, if they grow up at all.

Reported by Dan Rather
©1998, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved

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