World must galvanize to fight AIDS, stave off southern Africa's total collapse - UN

World must galvanize to fight AIDS, stave off southern Africa's total collapse - UN

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Although swift food aid deliveries have mitigated a humanitarian crisis in southern Africa, a horrifying new disaster looms as HIV/AIDS ravages the region, threatening the very existence of whole countries, two United Nations envoys warned today after a weeklong inter-agency mission to the region.

James Morris, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Envoy for Humanitarian Needs in Southern Africa, stressed that "without a radical and urgent approach, which addresses the terrifying reality of the pandemic and how it is indelibly woven with chronic food shortages, even worse crises will stalk vulnerable people for generations to come."

Mr. Morris was joined in Johannesburg today by Stephen Lewis, the Secretary-General's Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, and the two shared their impressions of the joint mission and touched on their stops in Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia.

In a statement, the two said the AIDS pandemic is changing the nature of famine in Africa by cutting agricultural productivity, weakening the population and undermining people's ability to recover from natural and man-made shocks.

"We know that the world's attention is focused elsewhere at the moment but it is crucial that the UN and the international community continue to channel their efforts into refocusing on and responding to the crisis in southern Africa and across the continent," the envoys said.

The calamitous conjunction of HIV/AIDS, severe food shortages and chronic poverty has left more than 15 million in need of assistance across the region. Mr. Lewis said the interlocking crises were causing a series of societal breakdowns through all sectors, not just agriculture. Wondering what might happen when the education, water and transportation sectors give way, he recalled that some government officials have said that they are "fighting for survival."

Both envoys said they were struck by the devastating impact of the dual crises on the region's women and children. Recalling scenes from the trip, Mr. Morris said he would never forget the number of children he met caring for themselves because their parents had died of the disease, or the tired grandmothers stepping in to take care of their orphaned grandchildren. He added that the "remarkable work" of many individuals trying to make a difference was equally moving.

The envoys will now pass their findings back to the UN and issue a report calling for a bold, new approach from the entire international community. They will advocate that current and future programmes of every UN agency be formed through the lens and reality of HIV/AIDS and its impact on women and children.