"By any measure, the HIV-AIDS pandemic is the most terrible undeclared war in the world," said Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF.
Speaking on the third day of Africa's largest AIDS conference, Bellamy said decades of gains for child survival and development were being wiped out across the continent by the disease.
The threat has been worsened by the lack of commitment from political leaders to fight AIDS, resulting in a "conspiracy of silence" to hide the seriousness of the crisis from ordinary people, she said.
At least 16 African presidents who were invited, including host President Frederick Chiluba of Zambia, did not attend the conference.
A report by Nigerian researchers presented in Lusaka Monday estimated that out of every one-hundred dollars allocated for the purchase of drugs in Africa, eighty-eight dollars were misspent or siphoned off by corrupt officials or leaders who received kickbacks.
AIDS campaigners, however, criticized the World Bank, U.N. agencies and major donors for not being firm enough with African governments over AIDS policy and their seriousness in combating the spread of the virus.
More than a quarter of adolescent women south of the Sahara-- the group most at risk from infection with the HIV virus that causes AIDS-- were unaware of even one effective way of avoiding the disease, research has shown.
In southern Africa, more than 30 percent of young women felt a healthy-looking person could not be a carrier, a study showed. Up to 90 percent of HIV carriers are unaware they are infected.
In Lusaka on Tuesday, the World Bank announced it had given new priority to AIDS programs in its $3 billion annual development loans to sub-Saharan Africa, putting AIDS "center stage" in African lending policies, spokeswoman Debbie Zwedie said.
Bellamy said African governments must make community education a top priority and recognize "the capabilities of communities and the poor to help themselves."
"We can achieve these goals only with the sustained support of officials at the highest level,"> Bellamy said.
UNICEF, she said, was moving to strengthen its support for regional governments and she called for greater help from international donors.
The United States spends $880 million fighting about 40,000 new AIDS cases a year. All of Africa spends about $150 million fighting 4 million new cases a year, and only one-tenth of the expenditure came from governments, Bellamy said.
"This is simply unacceptable," she said.
Africa accounts for two-thirds of the world's 31 million HIV-AIDS cases. The pandemic has claimed about 11 million lives.