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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 December, 2003, 10:45 GMT
'The genocide of a generation'

By Robin Lustig
BBC presenter

It's now more than three years since I met Pepile, but I still think of her often.

She died of Aids soon after I met her.

I'll be thinking of her even more than usual over the coming weeks as the BBC launches a two-week season of programmes and online coverage devoted to the HIV epidemic.

Samkelisiwe and her mother, Natal (Positive Lives)

Pepile was seven years old, and had been infected when her neighbour raped her. He thought that he would be cured of Aids if he had sex with a young girl.

She lived, and died, in South Africa, the country where there are more people living with HIV/Aids than anywhere else in the world.

Globally, the number of those infected is now more than 42 million; by the end of the decade it will have grown by another 45 million. Half of the people living with HIV/Aids are women; more than half are under the age of 24.

Stark statistics

Enough numbers? Here are some more: the populations of India, Russia and China make up half of the world's total population.

In all three countries, there are already clear signs of an Aids epidemic taking hold.

The race against what the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called "the genocide of a generation" is a marathon, not a sprint.
Nearly a million people are believed to be infected in Russia; more than a million in China, between four and five million in India.

Every time I see those numbers, I think of Pepile. Her father and brother had already died of Aids by the time I met her: the estimate now is that there are 14 million children around the world who have lost one or both of their parents to Aids.

Hitting the poor

Perhaps you live in a country where Aids is under control. Lucky you.

The impact of Aids on the hardest-hit countries

But do you, or people you know, travel to countries where it is widespread? Do people from those countries come to where you live? Globalisation means that viruses can cross borders just as easily as people can.

It is, of course, the poorest countries that suffer most. But whereas in the past it was the weakest who died in epidemics - usually the very young and the very old - Aids is different.

It kills young adults: the producers, the parents, the farmers. If factory workers die, production falls. If parents die, children are orphaned and their education brought to a halt. And if farmers die, food production suffers, and those who are left behind go hungry.

Funds for the fight

In 1999, the world's richest countries made available about $300 m to fight HIV/Aids.

Within three years that figure had risen 10-fold to $3 billion. By 2005, it's estimated that at least $10.5 billion will be needed.

The money is needed to buy drugs, to enable people with HIV/Aids to live longer. It is needed to pay for education - to teach girls how to say no to unwanted or unprotected sex.

And it is needed to pay for health care, because all the available evidence shows that where basic health care is deficient, Aids spreads more quickly.

Wake-up call

There is, as yet, no known cure for Aids. But there are known ways to slow its spread and to reduce its capacity to destroy communities.

HIV positive Quach Thi Mai lives with her young son in Vietnam.

The race against what the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called "the genocide of a generation" is a marathon, not a sprint.

When political leaders talk about it openly and honestly, when the world's richest countries wake up to the scale of the disaster, and when individual men and women learn how to change their behaviour to minimise the risk of infection - then, and only then, might we able to say that the race is being won.

The following comments were received:

I believe that the main problem of the current pandemic is economical
Wagaye, Addis Ababa

I believe that the main problem of the current pandemic is economical. I have clients who are living with HIV/Aids. We were trying to provide some support with no avail. Most of them preferred being beggars or going back to their old job (commercial sex worker). So tackling the main economical problem will prevent infection and help the people living with the virus have a longer life span.
Wagaye, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The Aids epidemic has increasingly become a world concern and as such one that involves nations as well as individuals. One hopes that the more powerful nations shall contribute more towards the eradication of this disease.
Yonni Belfon, Holguin, Cuba

When will the world wake up and realise just how important it is we deal with this issue now! People are dying in their millions and we do nothing about it. Aids in Africa is killing many, tearing families apart and damaging economies. It saddens me that we do nothing, and let the people die.
Andy, Lancaster

Poverty and Aids go together. No amount of money will stem the epidemic if corruption in the governments of Africa, Russia and China is not stemmed, and if no steps are taken to increase living standards for the populations of these countries. This is the simple, sad truth.
Savvas Socratous, Cyprus

Protection is the only solution!
Raje, Canada

De-mystify sex. Promote safe sex. Protection is the only solution!
Raje, Canada

Our level of consciousness and compassion must be raised in order to fight the stigma attached to the epidemic.
Hana Njau-Okolo, Snellville, Georgia, USA

My worry is the price of ARV'S in poor countries - surely I don't see how a poor villager can manage to buy these drugs. Even if they are available they are difficult to access. We are dying here in Zambia.
Collinskamocha, Kafue, Zambia

Aids is everybody's problem. We all need to fight and not discriminate upon those who have it.
Sarah Kimani, Nairobi, Kenya



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