AIDS killed 1.4 million people in eastern and southern Africa last year, overtaking armed conflicts as the No. 1 killer in the region, the United Nations Children's Fund declared Thursday.
The epidemic, which has hit this portion of the African continent harder than anywhere else in the world, has left 6 million children orphaned in eastern and southern Africa, amounting to 70 percent of the world's AIDS orphans, said UNICEF deputy executive director Stephen Lewis.
Forty-eight percent of the world's AIDS cases are in this region, Lewis said during the release of UNICEF's annual report on AIDS. It called for emergency action to curb the spread of AIDS in Africa.
"Fundamentally AIDS is spreading and stifling the economic and social infrastructure of the entire continent. It is killing the most productive age group," Lewis said. "It is doubling and tripling infant mortality rates. It is returning life expectancy to the levels of 1960s."
"It is the modern incarnation of Dante's inferno," Lewis said. "Never has Africa faced such a plague."
Worldwide, some 16,000 people daily are infected by HIV, and there are 8.2 million AIDS orphans, most in sub-Saharan Africa, the report said.
The report warned that AIDS could increase infant mortality in eastern and southern Africa by 75 percent and double the death rate of children under five in the region in the next decade.
By next year, AIDS will be responsible for 64 percent of the deaths of children under five in Botswana, while the disease is projected to double the child mortality rate in South Africa and Zimbabwe, the report said.
"The number of orphans in Africa constitute nothing less than an emergency requiring an emergency response," the report said.
In Uganda, some 1.1 million children under 15 - or 11 percent of the country's child population - have lost one or both parents to AIDS, the highest number of AIDS orphans in the world. In the developed world, that figure is at 1 percent.
Especially important is educating people on prevention and on building tolerance in the region, where AIDS victims are frequently shamed into silence.
Men, more than women, are intolerant of the disease, often refusing to be tested or to support wives stricken with AIDS, Lewis said.
Lewis attacked Western nations for not financing the fight against the scourge in Africa.
"It is morally indefensible," Lewis said, "That the West is prepared to spend upward of $40 billion to fight war in the Balkans then to engage in the economic restoration of Kosovo, and less than 1 percent of that to save the lives of tens of millions of women, children and men in Africa."
Written By George Mwangi