Study finds AIDS effort helps economies

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August 18, 2006

TORONTO -- The campaign to provide powerful AIDS medications to patients in Africa isn't just good for the health of the patients -- it's good for the health of the economy, too, researchers reported yesterday.

The AIDS epidemic has drained the fiscal vitality of nations in sub-Saharan Africa, with businesses unable to function and government agencies crippled because of so many deaths .

Paying for AIDS medications -- which typically cost about $200 per patient a year -- makes economic sense for the wealthier nations that provide most of the drugs, said Dr. Mark Wainberg, co-chairman of the 16th International AIDS Conference.

``The potential for economic devastation in Africa may be so great, we may do our own economies long-term harm if we don't help," said Wainberg, an HIV specialist in Montreal.

Using elaborate statistical models, French scientists examined the economic impact of expanding the number of patients taking AIDS pills in six African nations.

In four of the six countries, researchers found that massively expanding the availability of drugs would have a profound effect on the economy. They determined that by 2010, the economic damage done by AIDS over the past quarter-century could be reversed in Angola, Benin, Cameroon, and Cote d'Ivoire.

The effect would be more muted in the two other nations examined, Central African Republic and Zimbabwe, partially because of other fiscal and political issues.

The study shows that ``it's very important to get drugs to people as soon as possible," Jean-Paul Moatti, one of the French researchers, said at the AIDS conference. ``At the level of global economic policy, this is very important."

Uganda has withstood the AIDS epidemic better than most other African nations, in no small part because of prevention campaigns trumpeted as models for other countries. Infection rates among pregnant women, for example, were as high as 30 percent in 1990, but plummeted by the end of the decade.

Now, researchers reported yesterday, there's evidence that the decline in infection rates has leveled off and may even be increasing.

``It's very alarming," said study author Leigh Anne Shafer of the Medical Research Council, a British group with offices in Entebbe, Uganda. ``We want to stress the importance of taking action immediately because waiting another year or two for more data could cost thousands of lives."

The researchers tracked the infection rates of two groups of adults: women in prenatal clinics and men and women in a rural area.

They found that in 2000, 6.9 percent of the rural women were infected, but by 2005, 8.9 percent carried the virus.

``It's an unacceptably high rate and something must be done about it," said Dr. Alex Opio, an official in the Ugandan health ministry.

Disease researchers are investigating the reasons for the possible increase.

They know, for example, that in 2000 -- the same year infection rates hit a low point -- grass-roots prevention campaigns began to end.

Now, the Ugandan government is pledging to resume those efforts, which featured skits and health workers going door-to-door talking about HIV and unsafe sex.



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