Regional roundup

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 70% of the people who became infected with HIV this year. It is also the region in which four-fifths of all AIDS deaths occurred in 1998.

Africa, the global epicentre, continues to dwarf the rest of the world on the AIDS balance sheet. Since the start of the epidemic, 83% of all AIDS deaths so far have been in the region. Among children under 15, Africa’s share of new 1998 infections was 9 out of 10. At least 95% of all AIDS orphans have been African.1 Yet only a tenth of the world’s population lives in Africa south of the Sahara.

The sheer number of Africans affected by the epidemic is overwhelming. Since HIV began spreading, an estimated 34 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa have been infected with the virus. Some 11.5 million of those people have already died, a quarter of them children. In the course of 1998, AIDS will have been responsible for an estimated 2 million African deaths– 5500 funerals a day. And despite the scale of death, today there are more Africans living with HIV than ever before: 21.5 million adults and a further 1 million children.

While no country in Africa has escaped the virus, some are far more severely affected than others. The bulk of new infections continue to be concentrated in East and especially in Southern Africa.

The southern part of the African continent holds the majority of the world’s hard-hit countries. In Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, current estimates show that between 20% and 26% of people aged 15-49 are living with HIV or AIDS. South Africa, which trailed behind some of its neighbours in HIV infection levels at the start of the 1990s, is unfortunately catching up fast: one in seven new infections on the continent this year are believed to be in this one country. Zimbabwe is especially hard-hit. There are 25 surveillance sites in the country where blood taken from pregnant women is tested anonymously as a way of tracking HIV infection. The most recent data, from 1997, show that in only 2 of these sites did HIV prevalence remain below 10%. In the remaining 23 sites, some 20-50% of all pregnant women were found to be infected. At least one-third of these women are likely to pass the infection on to their baby.

Other areas of the continent are far from immune. One in ten adults or more are HIV-infected in Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti and Kenya. In general, however, West Africa is less affected by HIV than Southern or East Africa, and some countries in Central Africa have also seen HIV remain relatively stable. Early and sustained prevention efforts can be credited with these lower rates in some cases—Senegal provides a good example. But elsewhere, where far less has been done to encourage safer sex, the reasons for the relative stability remain obscure. Research is under way to explain the differences between epidemics in various countries. These studies are looking into factors that may play some role, such as patterns of sexual networking, levels of condom use with different partners, and treatment of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), which if left untreated make it easier for HIV to pass through sexual intercourse.

Increasingly, the spotlight is on the spread of HIV through the Asian continent, especially in South Asia and East Asia. While rates remain low relative to some other regions, well over 7 million Asians are already infected and HIV is clearly beginning to spread in earnest through the vast populations of India and China.

India provides an interesting example of the shifting patterns of HIV.

  • Until recently, it was commonly assumed that HIV infection in the world’s second most populous nation was concentrated in urban sex workers and their clients and in drug injectors living in a few states. The last round of sentinel surveillance in antenatal clinics shows that in at least in five states, more than 1% of pregnant women in urban areas are now infected.
  • India’s rural areas—home to 73% of the country’s 930 million people—were thought to be relatively spared by the epidemic. Again, new studies show that at least in some areas, HIV has become worryingly common in villages as well as cities. A recent survey of randomly selected households in Tamil Nadu found that 2.1% of the adult population living in the countryside had HIV, as compared with 0.7% of the urban population. For this small state, with its population of 25 million, the study findings suggest that there are close to half a million people already infected with HIV in Tamil Nadu. Considering that nearly 10% of the people surveyed had gonorrhoea, syphilis or another sexually transmitted disease, HIV clearly has fertile ground for further spread.
  •  UNAIDS defines AIDS orphans as people who lost their mother or both their parents to AIDS when they were under the age of 15.

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