Out of Africa: The Global Total of HIV Cases Is Predicted to Hit 75 Million in Five Years If Businesses and Governments Fail to Tackle the Spread of the Virus Together. on Top of the Human Cost, Its Economic Impact Could Be Ruinous

Article excerpt

At first glance, southern Africa seems to be bearing the brunt of the Aids epidemic. We've seen the news coverage, we've heard the statistics and all the signs are that the problem there is getting even worse. The United Nations forecasts that up to 90 million Africans will be infected by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the next two decades if the political will to tackle the problem does not strengthen. But less well known is the fact that HIV is threatening to spread to a comparable extent in developing economies on other continents. Two recent reports have warned that if national governments and, more crucially, businesses fail to respond quickly, it could threaten many more lives and the stability of financial markets around the world.

About 44 million people around the world are HIV-positive, according to the latest estimates. Of these, 65 per cent are living in sub-Saharan Africa. But health experts are warning that the virus has explosive potential in some of the world's fastest-growing economies--Brazil, Russia, India and China (known as the Bric group of countries)--and the Asia-Pacific region. UNAIDS, the United Nations agency dedicated to fighting the disease, reports that the epidemic is spreading quickest of all in east Asia, where the number of known HIV cases increased by 24 per cent last year alone.

Until recently, the problem has been partially masked by the different scales of the populations involved. Less than one per cent of the population in India is infected, but that still equates to more than five million cases--nearly as many as in South Africa, where 22 per cent of the population is HIV-positive. China has the second-highest infection rate in Asia, with an estimated 840,000 carriers. UNAIDS predicts that this figure will reach ten million by 2010 without a concerted prevention programme. Other countries are risking similar explosions. Experts say it's only a matter of time before the virus breaks out from high-risk groups into the wider community. JVR Prasada Rao, director of UNAIDS' regional support team for Asia-Pacific, has gone so far as to call HIV "a silent tsunami".

UNAIDS' conclusion is stark: either national governments can take a business-as-usual approach and risk letting the virus infect another 12 million people, or they can try to curb it by investing in awareness programmes and the provision of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. Many of the states threatened by HIV have acknowledged the dangers ahead. At an international Aids conference in Bangkok last year, government representatives from countries including India, Japan, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand stated their commitment to improving awareness and services. But even if the will is there, do such countries have the infrastructure to tackle the problem in time?

Although the UN is obviously focusing on the humanitarian aspects, the global business community--led by firms that are already feeling the knock-on effects of HIV in southern Africa--is waking up to the financial implications. A report published by investment bank UBS and ethical investment firm F&C Asset Management this year echoed UNAIDS' warning and explained the economic connotations. Although subSaharan Africa contains 11 per cent of the world's population, the region represents only one per cent of the world's gross domestic product. By contrast, Bric accounts for 42 per cent of the world's population and eight per cent of its GDP. Although its economic contribution may not seem major now, the report notes that Bric is becoming strategically important for many western multinationals and that its GDP is expected to increase significantly in the near future. It concludes that, if an Aids epidemic should strike in the Bric countries, its impact could well threaten sustained economic growth in those regions and the performance of financial markets across the world.

These concerns are shared by Trevor Neilson, executive director of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/Aids. …