GENEVA (AFP) — Africa's AIDS epidemic is so severe that it should be classed as a disaster comparable to floods or famine, the Red Cross said Thursday.
In its annual "World Disasters Report", the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said that there was "no doubt" that HIV/AIDS matches the UN definition of a disaster.
About two thirds of the world's HIV-positive cases are in sub-Saharan Africa. At least one person in 10 is living with HIV in nations such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland and Zambia, the report said.
The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs classes a disaster as a "serious disruption of the functioning of a society, causing widespread human, material or environmental losses which exceed the ability of a society to cope using only its own resources".
The Red Cross said such a crisis now exists in Africa.
The consequences of the epidemic are felt by all of society and not just those who are sick, due to the economic strain and social tensions.
"Reflecting on the lives of most people living in sub-Saharan Africa raises more alarm than hope," the IFRC said.
"The virus is directly responsible for restraining and reducing human and resource capacities across societies because HIV infections and AIDS deaths are common among workers of all qualifications and expertise, and in all industries.
"Coupled with the high costs of caring for people living with HIV, those capacity constraints lead to withered health and education systems, declining food security, skilled labour shortages and an increasingly ramshackled infrastructure," the report warned.
Lindsay Knight, who edited the report said: "The HIV and AIDS epidemic is a disaster whose scale and extent could have been prevented. Ignorance, stigma, political inaction, indifference and denial all contributed to millions of deaths."
Mobility and migration are adding further difficulties in the management of the disaster.
"The HIV epidemic can spell disaster for both sending and receiving communities, as well as communities along transit routes," said the report.
For instance, in countries with relatively low HIV prevalence, such as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Pakistan, a larger proportion of returning migrants had the disease compared to the general populations.
About 35 percent of all documented HIV cases in the Philippines were among returning workers who have worked overseas, while in 2006, they made up 42 percent of new HIV cases, the report noted.
The World Health Organisation said this month that the number of people in developing countries receiving antiretroviral drugs to combat HIV had risen sevenfold in the past three years to nearly three million by 2007.
But a WHO co-authored report found that much more needed to be done: despite the increase, an estimated 6.7 million people in need of anti-retrovirals were still unable to access medicines, out of a total of 9.7 million.
The report, produced in conjunction with UNAIDS and UNICEF, said that the rise was due to the increased availability of drugs, in part due to price cuts, but also to delivery systems better adapted to specific country needs.
But there was also increased demand for the treatment, as the number of people tested and diagnosed with HIV climbed, the WHO noted.
Earlier this year, a joint UN study found that more than two million children worldwide were living with the HIV virus in 2007, most of whom were infected before they were born.
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