The global AIDS epidemic may be worse than previously thought. A new report from UNAIDS, the United Nations' AIDS program, reveals that last year's global estimates were way off: New HIV infections in 1996 amounted to 5.3 million, not 3.1 million as reported last December. This year there have already been an estimated 5.8 million new infections, bringing the total number of people living with HIV to some 30 million worldwide.
Previous calculations grossly underestimated the rate of transmission, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where two-thirds of people with HIV live, according to the report. The virus is fast reducing life expectancy to levels of 40 years ago. The hardest hit region is Southern Africa: In Botswana, for example, 25% to 30% of the adult population is believed to be HIV-positive. Numerically, though, the greatest growth in AIDS cases is expected in densely populated countries of South Asia and India. "The worst is still to come," says the report.
That grim conclusion is reinforced by a second report, from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The agency warns that the growing number of orphans created by AIDS means a concurrent growth not only of disease, but of hopelessness, ignorance, crime, vagrancy, starvation, and social disorder. USAID surveyed 23 countries with HIV rates of 5% or higher--19 of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Children who have lost one or both parents to AIDS will make up one-third of the population under age 15 in some areas by 2000, it estimates.
Nils Daulaire, senior adviser for health, children's, and women's issues at USAID, calls the prognosis "staggering," adding that "this is the first time we have hard data." The report calls for new efforts to improve the economic status of widowed mothers and to strengthen community resources to raise and educate children whose families have been laid waste by AIDS.