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Press briefing by Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa

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Press Briefing
It would be an unspeakable humanitarian tragedy if the rumours of war in Iraq, or an actual war, subverted the struggle against AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis, the Secretary-General's Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa, said today at a Headquarters press briefing.

Reporting on his recent mission to Southern Africa, Mr. Lewis said he completely understood the inevitable preoccupation with Iraq, and North Korea, and the Middle East, but no one, including the media, should permit any distraction from the AIDS struggle, as that would be the ultimate triumph of conflict over the human imperative.

Drawing attention to the report of the mission in January to Lesotho, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabe, he said it contained very strong and uncompromising language because there was no room for ambiguity. Among the mission's findings was that HIV/AIDS was the most fundamental underlying cause of the southern African crisis. There had been much debate about drought and rainfall, but his findings now, conclusively stated, supported the new variant of famine - a different kind of hunger, food shortage and agricultural decimation, which was, in significant measure, caused by HIV/AIDS.

Women were terrifyingly vulnerable, he said. Women's depreciation in the world always came back to haunt and it was haunting now "with a vengeance" in southern Africa. Women everywhere were afflicted with HIV/AIDS. They were not only sick themselves, but were assuming the full burden of care. They worked at home, in conscripted labour, which was neither acknowledged nor compensated. Millions of women had lost their lives to the AIDS pandemic over the last decade.

Quoting from the report, he said "the apparent lack of urgency, leadership, direction and responsibility in the response of the United Nations, national governments, and the international community to the pandemic's effects on women and girls is deeply troubling". Continuing to read from the report, he said, "Whereas gender policies and principles are widely discussed by the United Nations, governments and NGOs, the urgent actions flowing from those discussions must be implemented. So far, that does not appear to have happened".

He said he was disconsolate about that reality. He was also extremely concerned about the extraordinary proliferation of orphans on the continent, which was "out of control". The focus must be on finding a solution to that problem. Also, the breakdown of the agricultural sector and the grievous interlocking of agriculture, and AIDS were not isolated. Rather, that was a harbinger of what would come -- all sectors, private, military, and so forth, would progressively breakdown under the AIDS assault. And that could potentially shred societies. In that context, leaders had used the word "extinction", he added.

The mission had returned to the region (the first mission was in September 2002) because the Secretary-General had felt that the crisis was of such magnitude, he explained. The recommendations, as detailed in the report, concerned: the indispensable nature of food security; a much heightened involvement of the United Nations at the country level; evaluation of the programmes of the United Nations, international financial institutions and donor governments against the HIV/AIDS backdrop; and orphans.

Further recommendations concerned: greater attention on women; a focus on food, as well as non-food aspects, such as health, nutrition, education, and anti-viral medications; and finding people to fill in on jobs where others had died. The situation had moved from capacity-building to capacity replacement, or replenishment.

He said that the World Food Programme had done a remarkable job on the ground in certain countries and had prevented famine. What it had not been able to stop, what no one had been able to stop, was the AIDS emergency. That went on with no end in sight.