More than 25m people live with HIV/Aids in Africa
Nelson Mandela, has urged the world to fight the "terrible and threatening scourge" of HIV and Aids, describing the disease as "no less than a war, a world war that affects all of us ultimately".
The former South African leader also said on Thursday that he had voiced his "sharp differences" with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W. Bush over the Iraq war.
Visiting the UK to receive an award, Mr Mandela devoted the bulk of his speech to Aids which he said represented a tragedy of unprecedented proportions unfolding particularly in Africa, but spread across the whole globe.
"Aids today in Africa is claiming more lives than the sum total of all wars, famines and floods, and the ravages of such deadly diseases as malaria," he said in London's Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre.
"It is devastating families and communities, overwhelming and depleting health care services and robbing schools of both students and teachers."
Mr Mandela, giving this year's Red Cross Humanity lecture in London attended by more than 700 people, hailed the work of the International Red Cross (ICRC), which he said can play a huge role in mobilising world opinion and resources to help combat this terrible and threatening scourge.
He also paid tribute to the Red Cross, which helped him and other prisoners during his 27 years in jail in South Africa.
"The improvements in the conditions of our imprisonment at Robben Island were to a large measure due to the pressure that the mere presence of the Red Cross brought to bear on our jailer regime.
HIV/Aids in Southern Africa
29.4m people live with HIV/AIDS
3.5m new infections in 2002
2.4m Africans died in 2002 only
f10m youths (15-24- year olds) live with HIV
3m children under 15 live with HIV
12m Aids orphans
"It says much for the moral weight of the Red Cross that even the apartheid regime, which was in so many other respects indifferent to world opinion, found itself cowed and pressurised by this organisation," Mr Mandela said.
Red Cross award
Mr Mandela, who received a series of rapturous standing ovations from the audience, was presented with a Red Cross Humanity Fellowship Award by Dr Jacques Moreillon, the Red Cross delegate who visited him in prison in the early 1970s.
Sub-Saharan Africa has more than 12m Aids orphans
He said that the ICRC teaches a lesson that those "who conduct themselves with morality, integrity and consistency need not fear the forces of inhumanity and cruelty, evil ultimately lives in fear of and under threat from the uncompromising commitment to justice, fairness and humane compassion".
The British Red Cross, which has been working on the Aids crisis in Africa for the past 10 years, is calling for more money to train instructors and provide healthcare services in the region.
The organisation also needs more volunteers to become peer educators and raise awareness of the disease.
More than 25 million people are living with HIV/Aids in Africa, which the old statesman said is having a devastating impact on families, communities, societies and economies.
Business has suffered losses of personnel, productivity and profits, economic growth is being undermined and scarce development resources have to be diverted to deal with the consequences of the pandemic, Mr Mandela said.
AIDS IN AFRICA
Africa's growing epidemic
In early July, the World Food Programme, (WFP) warned that because productivity in the agricultural sector is the hardest hit by the spread of Aids, food shortages are likely to persist in Southern Africa which needs 500 000 metric tonnes of food in the next 12 months.
If current Aids trends continue in Southern Africa, it is predicted that life expectancy will fall below 30 years of age by 2010.
Aids is clearly a disaster, effectively wiping out the development gains of the past decades and sabotaging the future, Mr Mandela said.
"Decades have been chopped from life expectancy and young child mortality is expected to more than double in the most severely affected countries of Africa."