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AIDS Might Devastate Southern Africa, a Pair of New Reports Say

By Dean E. Murphy
Los Angeles Times

Two startling reports on AIDS show the disease is spreading so rapidly in South Africa that it threatens to perpetuate the ills of apartheid by crippling the economy and devastating families for decades to come.

Released to coincide with Tuesday's World AIDS Day, the reports say that while the AIDS epidemic was slow in coming to South Africa and its neighbors, it now has arrived with a vengeance. The region has become the hardest-hit in the world. One in 10 people infected with the human immunodeficiency virus worldwide lives in South Africa.

"Some of the advances made by the new South African democracy will be reversed unless we act now," said J. David Whaley, the United Nations' resident coordinator in South Africa.

The U.N. officials who authored of one of the two reports released Monday in South Africa, have chosen to focus World AIDS Day for the first time on southern Africa, because of what they characterize as an "unprecedented emergency" only fully recognized in the past year.

On average, one person is infected with HIV every minute in South Africa, according to data compiled by the U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS, or UNAIDS. If the trend continues over the next decade, government officials here say, the average South African can expect to live just 40 years.

About 130,000 South Africans have died so far this year from AIDS, according to the South African Department of Health. The number of deaths annually is projected to double over the next three years, and to exceed 500,000 by the year 2008, if current rates of infection continue.

The worst-affected countries in the world - Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe - are all neighbors of South Africa, and the U.N. says South Africa is catching up rapidly.

In the past year, according to one estimate, about 1.4 million people between the ages of 15 and 49 were infected in nine southern African countries. About half of the new infections were in South Africa. In all, more than 3.2 million people in South Africa are infected with HIV.