The curtain rises in Durban in South Africa, Sunday, on a world conference on AIDS which Africans hope will shake wealthy countries out of complacency as the killer disease scythes through their continent, where up to one adult in three is infected by the plague.
The International AIDS Conference, held for the first time in a developing country, is the 13th in the series since a mysterious bug, later named the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), was isolated nearly 20 years ago.
Since then, according to the figures of the specialist UN agency UNAIDS, at least 18.8 million people have died of AIDS and 34.3 million people are infected by HIV or the full-blown disease.
No cure is in sight and any vaccine lies at least several years down the road.
Good progress has been made in devising drugs, called retrovirals, that keep the virus at bay yet do not eradicate it from the body. But, at nearly 3,000 dollars per person per year, this treatment lies cruelly out of reach of poorer countries which are suffering most from the epidemic.
Such is the extent of HIV/AIDS in Africa that some experts fear the worst-hit countries will simply die.
These nations would still exist in name but they would be destroyed as functioning entities, rather as the Black Death devastated Europe in the Middle Ages simply because it killed so many workers.
More than 70 percent of infections occur sub-Sahara. In Botswana, 35.8 percent of adults have HIV or AIDS; the rate in Zimbabwe and Swaziland is more than one in four; in South Africa, nearly one in five of the adult population has been infected; in Malawi, average life expectancy is down to 37.
Many activists sense that the West, lulled by the success of its AIDS awareness campaigns and the retrovirals, has become deaf to Africa's cries for help.
"Over 90 percent of the world's population affected by HIV live in developing countries," points out the conference's chairman, South African professor Hoosen Coovadia.
The run-up to the six-day meeting has been marked by a controversy surrounding South African President Thabo Mbeki, who accused mainstream medicine of seeking a "super-imposition of Western experience on African reality".
He then included in an advisory panel several AIDS dissidents who maintain the virus is not propagated by body fluids but by illness caused by poverty or malnutrition.
That sparked an unprecedented rebuke last weekend from 5,000 AIDS researchers, who said good science, rather than "myth," would combat the epidemic.
Alan Whiteside, director of the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division at the University of Natal in Durban, said he hoped the conference would not descend into a fruitless squabble about conventional science.
"What South Africa has got is a First World quality of science with a Third World experience. I am optimistic about the outcome," he said.
Troops, armed police and private security squads hired by the authorities have been placed on alert to protect the 11,000 delegates, who are meeting in one of the most crime-ridden countries in the world.
Demonstrations are being permitted, in line with South Africa's constitution, one of the most liberal in the world, but security units have also been given firm instructions to quell any disruption of the kind that hobbled the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in Seattle last year.
Several thousand activists from more than 200 groups are expected to rally at Durban City Hall on Sunday to demand that pharmaceutical companies lower their prices for the best anti-HIV treatment.
"Drug companies are charging extremely high prices for HIV medicines so that they can make very large profits," say the organisers of the protest, Treatment Action Campaign. "Most South Africans and poor people everywhere in the world cannot afford to buy treatments for HIV" – AFP.
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)