In Africa, AIDS Is Now a Security Problem

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When the United Nations Security Council meets, it's usually to try to sort out some regional trouble spot — a war between countries, a looming military threat. On Monday, they met to discuss a war of sorts. Certainly there have been a lot of casualties — 2 million dead in 1998. But this wasn't the usual Security Council fare; instead, it was about AIDS, and in particular the need for funding, education and medicine in African nations devastated by the AIDS epidemic.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a long-standing, vocal proponent of AIDS education, welcomed a $150 million pledge from Vice President Al Gore, who also gave assurances that the U.S. military could be used to help stop the spread of AIDS. Annan warned council members that the disease, which strikes at all levels of society and across age and gender lines, could destroy the social infrastructure of Africa, endangering the basic functioning of many countries. And while delegates from Russia and China voiced doubts that the AIDS epidemic should fall under the aegis of the generally military-minded Security Council, TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell disagrees. "The new threat for the next millennium is disease run rampant," says Dowell. "AIDS is absolutely a security issue."

While the entire continent continues to reel from the disease, eastern and southern Africa have been hit with particularly staggering numbers of AIDS cases. More than 10 million children have been orphaned by the disease, and experts predict the numbers will continue to climb unless extraordinary measures are taken.

While education and prevention are also key components in the fight against HIV and AIDS, the debate over the distribution of AIDS drugs will be particularly heated; it's complicated in Africa by the fact that most people are unable to find or pay for the necessary drugs, such as AZT and protease inhibitors. South Africa, where more than 25 percent of expectant mothers are estimated to be infected with AIDS, has been involved in a well-publicized tug-of-war with pharmaceutical companies keen to protect their patent rights for the most popular AIDS drugs. "At this point, pharmaceutical companies are doing everything they can to keep the drugs to themselves," says Dowell, who points out that even though the clinical trials for many AIDS drugs are funded by government agencies, the drugs' development and patents remain the domain of the various pharmaceutical companies.

Buffeted by the initial support of Vice President Gore, several drug makers recently looked poised to withhold information that would enable countries too poor to pay for the drugs to manufacture their own medicines and pay a licensing fee to the drug companies. Gore, caught off guard by the fury of gay rights activists and African protesters, backtracked and is now firmly entrenched in the U.N. effort to bring affordable drugs to the developing world. While some kind of compromise will probably be reached between the diplomats and drug companies, says Dowell, it's unclear what the terms will be. As the pharmaceutical firms know, profit can inspire robust defense — but fierce public sentiment could buoy the U.N. position, clearing the way for more accessible AIDS therapy in the countries where the need is so great.

"Many people feel this is such a monumental problem it surpasses market issues," says Dowell. Stay tuned to see if the U.N. can convince the drug companies to buy into that distinctly non-capitalist sentiment.

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