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Ela DuttIndia Abroad Correspondent in Washington
World Bank officials believe India should be fighting the scourge of HIV/AIDS on a war footing or its very existence is at stake.
Concerned Indian activists and officials believe the war should be fought like the pre-war
Manhattan Project in the US that focused on building the Atom Bomb.
On the eve of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on
HIV/AIDS in New York, World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn
in a statement, called on nations, corporations and non-governmental
organizations to fight together against "a catastrophe for development."
HIV/AIDS, the Bank says, is reversing life expectancy by decades in some
countries. More than 36 million people are now living with HIV/AIDS
worldwide, 95 percent of them in developing countries. 21.8 million people
have died already from the disease, 4.3 million of them children. Last year
alone, 5.3 million people became newly infected with HIV.
India has estimated it has 3.9 million people infected with the virus.
Richard Skolnik, Chief, Population and Natural Resources, in the South Asia
Regional Office at the World Bank in Washington, told India Abroad that New
Delhi had a "gigantic unfinished agenda" in the struggle against AIDS.
While there were several achievements over the last decade, he said, "no way
are steps so gigantic as to deal with the problem."
He said India should treat the scourge "on a war footing because India's very
life could depend on it."
In his 16 years of working on India, Skolnik said, the problem is still getting
worse though over the last 10 years, the country had developed a "careful and
well-designed AIDS program," to raise the response capacity.
"India has to act like its life depends on it,"Skolnik emphasized, and noted that Tamil Nadu was
moving on a war footing.
"My Indian friends believe that AIDS should be treated by the government like
building a bomb," Skolnik said, adding, "If you wanted to build a bomb you
would have a Manhattan Project. What could stop the Prime Minister from
saying that and bringing in the best people. Otherwise India will look like
another Zambia, or Botswana, or Swaziland."
AIDS was now a global development problem, threatening to reverse many
of the gains made over the last half century, Wolfensohn said. "There is
simply no reason why generations of people should disappear as a result of
AIDS when a determined global movement of governments, communities,
private companies, development agencies, and civil
society groups can make a dramatic difference."
The Bank estimates that annual per capita growth in half the countries of
sub-Saharan Africa, the region worst hit by the epidemic, is falling by 0.5-1.2
percent as a direct result of AIDS and that by 2010, per capita GDP in some of
the hardest hit countries may drop by as much as 8 percent.
Although dramatic reductions in prices of anti-retroviral drugs are key
to treatment, at $400-$500 a year, down from $10,000, they are more
affordable, but still well out of reach for the vast majority of infected people in
developing countries where per capita income is less than $500 per year, and
where many governments spend less than $5 per person on healthcare.
Making these drugs available free in India would not
necessarily take care of the problem, he said. . "People in India are giving serious thought
to this all the time. They are desperately worried that even if the anti-retroviral
drugs were free, managing the distribution of these will be extremely difficult -
with blood tests, other lab tests, and the potential of developing drug-resistant
strains of HIV."
He said the Bank is hoping it can help India have an open debate "very
quickly" on anti-retroviral therapy so that priorities can be set. At the same
time, the use of Neviprin against mother-to-child transmission was certainly a
good idea because it was cheap and effective.
The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), of which
the Bank is a co-sponsor- estimates that a basic HIV/AIDS program in all
developing countries would cost at least $9.2 billion per year, six times the
current level of investment which is approximately $1.5 billion a year.
This estimate does not include the additional costs involved in improving the health
infrastructure in developing countries.
"In throwing their weight behind a
global trust fund for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS and other
communicable diseases, rich countries must ensure that their pledges of
financial support represent genuinely new money over and above existing volumes of foreign aid", says Wolfensohn, adding that to reallocate existing funds would "simply be a shell game."
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