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UN: Africa AIDS Toll Could Top 80M

More than 80 million Africans may die from AIDS by 2025, the United Nations said in a report released Friday, warning this may create millions of orphans who could be easy recruits for rogue armies on a continent torn apart by wars.

HIV infections could soar to 90 million — more than 10 percent of Africa's population — if more isn't done soon to fight the pandemic, the report said. UNAIDS estimates the number of AIDS orphans could grow from the current 11 million to 27 million by 2025 without greater action and funding.

"All these kids growing up without any reference point, they are going to be a very easy reserve for any warlord that comes along," UNAIDS chief Dr. Peter Piot told journalists.

"In today's world, AIDS threatens to destabilize certainly Africa and perhaps Eastern Europe in a big way," Piot said. "That affects the wealthy countries in terms of migration, decreasing markets and in terms of the facts that maybe troops will be sent (to restore peace) — all types of expensive consequences."

More than 25 million African have already been infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. UNAIDS estimated that nearly $200 billion is needed to save 16 million people from death and 43 million people from becoming infected, but donors have pledged nowhere near that amount.

In its report "AIDS in Africa," the U.N. agency examines three potential scenarios for the continent in the next 20 years depending on the international community's contribution to fighting the epidemic.

Researchers determined that even with massive funding and better treatment, the number of Africans who will die from the virus is likely to top 67 million.

"What we do today will change the future," concluded the report, drawn up by some of the worlds leading experts on HIV and AIDS. "These scenarios demonstrate that, while societies will have to deal with AIDS for some time to come, the extent of the epidemic's impact will depend on the responses and investment now."

The three scenarios include a best-case situation, a middle-case and a doomsday scenario. They all warn that the worst of the epidemic's impact is still to come.

"The scenarios are not predictions, they are plausible stories about the future," Piot said. "The scenarios highlights the various choices that are likely to confront African countries in the coming decades."

"There is no single policy prescription that will change the outcome of the epidemic," the report stated. "The death toll will continue to rise no matter what is done."

Under the worst-case scenario, experts have plotted current policies and funding over the next two decades.

"It offers a disturbing window on the future death toll across the continent, with the cumulative number of people dying from AIDS increasing more than fourfold," it says. "The number of children orphaned by the epidemic will continue to rise beyond 2025."

AIDS already has a devastating impact on the continent.

UNAIDS has reported that life expectancy in nine countries has dropped to below 40 because of the disease. There are 11 million orphans, while 6,500 people are dying each day. In 2004, 3.1 million people were newly infected, the agency said.

The impact of AIDS on Africa is comparable to the death toll of the African the slave trade that ended in the 19th century, during which 20 to 30 percent of people were taken away or killed in the hunt for slaves, Piot said.

"If by 2025 millions of African people are still becoming infected with HIV each year, these scenarios suggest that it will not be because there was no choice," the report said. "It will be because, collectively, there was insufficient political will to change behavior at all levels from the institution, to the community, to the individual and halt the forces driving the AIDS epidemic in Africa."

Hundreds of experts and people living with the virus helped draw up the report.

"Millions of new infections can be prevented if Africa and the rest of the world decide to tackle AIDS as an exceptional crisis that has the potential to devastate entire societies and economies," Piot said.

By Anthony Mitchell