Friday, June 22, 2007

The goal of controlling HIV/AIDS in Africa remains remote

Craig Timberg:

Amid the morning bustle of Johannesburg Hospital's AIDS clinic, Francois Venter darts from room to room, poking his head inside and asking both doctor and patient, "Are you okay?"

More and more, they are. The clinic he helps oversee is one of the continent's best at distributing antiretroviral drugs. The waiting room fills each day with more than 100 patients whose full faces contradict the stereotype of hollow-cheeked Africans with AIDS.

But beyond the walls of this hospital, Venter says, doctors are not winning -- and probably cannot win -- the war against the epidemic, because it is spreading far more quickly than doctors are treating its victims. Even as billions of dollars are spent expanding access to antiretroviral drugs, the goal of controlling AIDS in Africa remains remote.

"At the moment, I just see a never-ending sea of disaster," said Venter, 37, the dark-haired, long-limbed president of the Southern African HIV Clinicians Society.

Underlying his frustration are grim statistics: For every South African who started taking antiretroviral drugs last year, five others contracted HIV, the same ratio as on the continent as a whole, U.N. reports say. A South African turning 15 today has a nearly 50 percent chance of contracting the virus in his or her lifetime, research shows.

The problem is not the medicine, which is among the most powerful in the world. In places such as the United States and Europe, where prevention programs were already succeeding against much smaller epidemics, the arrival of antiretroviral drugs was a turning point in the battle against AIDS.

But in sub-Saharan Africa, prevention programs have mostly failed to curb the behavior -- especially the habit of maintaining several sexual partners at a time -- that drives the epidemic, research indicates.

So while antiretroviral drugs have prolonged and improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Africans, millions more are being newly infected with a disease that is still incurable and, for most, terminal.

In South Africa, AIDS deaths are projected to increase at least through 2025 despite steadily improving access to antiretrovirals, according to the Actuarial Society of South Africa. The prognosis on the rest of the continent is at least as bleak.

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