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AIDS is long-term threat to global security, experts warn

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LONDON, Sept 9 (AFP) - AIDS is an enduring threat to world security, helping to pitch fragile, HIV-ravaged countries into turmoil and war and create potential havens for terrorists, a conference here was told on Thursday.

Experts voiced fears for several nations in southern Africa, where millions of adults have been infected by the human immunodeficiency virus yet face a death sentence without anti-HIV drugs.

Their early death will inflict crippling blows to their national economies and social fabric, furthering the potential for civic unrest and friction with neighbours.

"HIV/AIDS does not by itself cause wars and insurgencies, but it is severely destabilising in several ways," said Joep Lange, a University of Amsterdam professor who co-organised the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok in July.

"South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland will be potential basket cases if they don't act, and in the case of Botswana, if it doesn't act, it will cease to exist," he warned.

Countries whose economies, social cohesion and government have collapsed because of AIDS "can strike at the security of the international system," for they can plunge into civil war, ignite regional conflicts or become boltholes for terrorists, Lange said.

"AIDS is a major threat, on a country-by-country basis and on the global level," said Alan Whiteside, a professor of economics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Referring to Somalia as an example of a chaotic state that existed only in name, he said "it is entirely possible that there will be a (similar) doomsday scenario for some countries" which face soaring HIV rates, he said.

He cited Zimbabwe as a case where a rampaging epidemic had encouraged autocratic government and economic collapse, and expressed concern for Malawi, Swaziland and Botswana.

However, poor but well-led countries can unify in the face of AIDS, he said, citing Uganda, where the adult HIV rate has fallen from double figures to five percent in 15 years.

The two-day overview in London on the world's AIDS crisis is being staged by the Royal Society of Medicine and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The feared link between AIDS and security began to be aired in 2000 but data to back the theory remains sketchy and the evidence is mostly demographic, Lange and Whiteside said.

The adult infection rate is 38.8 percent in Swaziland, making it the highest in the world, while 37.3 percent are infected by HIV in Botswana and 25 percent in South Africa, according to UNAIDS figures.

In seven sub-Saharan countries -- Zambia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Central African Republic, Lesotho, Mozambique and Malawi -- the life expectancy of a child born there today is blow 40, the UN Development Programme estimates.

Africa's 12.3 million AIDS orphans are a long-term source of turbulence, for they are vulnerable to crime, prostitution and child-soldiering, Lange said.

The military are another risk, Lange said, citing studies which said HIV prevalence in the armies of Congo and Nigeria were between 10 and 20 percent, between 15-30 percent in Tanzania and 40-60 percent in Angola.

"A military force that is sick and dying will not be effective... and become an increasing source of instability inside a nation and for its neighbours," Lange said.

As for AIDS' macroeconomic impact, Stevan Lee, with Britain's Department of International Development, said conventional models showed a major epidemic of HIV/AIDS reduced gross domestic product growth by 0.5-2.0 percent per year.

"This may seem relatively small, but in fact it's punitive," Lee said, "Over a 20-year period that's going to leave an economy in a very serious situation."

A far darker scenario, which Lee described as "a bit unrealistic," is the "unstable" model which says that very heavily-affected countries may be pushed towards a "tipping point" -- de facto collapse -- by AIDS.

According to the International Labour Organisation, AIDS cost the South African economy 72 billion dollars in the 10 years to 2002.



COPYRIGHT 2004 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.


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