Home | News    Wednesday 16 June 2004

INTERVIEW-Sudan lacks money to face growing AIDS threat

By Opheera McDoom

CAIRO, June 16 (Reuters) - Sudan faces an AIDS epidemic that could threaten national security as its health system is struggling to cope with the rapidly spreading disease, a government official said on Wednesday.

Lawless Sudan is afflicted by Africa’s longest-running civil war in the south and what aid officials say is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in the west. It has little healthcare or infrastructure.

Mohamed Siddig, deputy head of the national AIDS programme, told Reuters 2.6 percent of Sudanese between the ages of 15 and 49 were infected with HIV/AIDS.

"It is a real threat and an increasing threat to development, national security, to human resources," he told Reuters from Khartoum. "Each month we have more people reported compared to the previous month."

But Siddig, who works closely with the United Nations’ AIDS programmes in Sudan, said many people die without knowing they had HIV/AIDS because the 21-year-old civil war in the south has devastated health systems in Africa’s largest country.

That war has claimed more than two million lives and broadly pits the Islamic government in Khartoum against the mainly animist, Christian south, complicated by issues of ethnicity, oil and ideology.

Arab militia have been killing, raping and looting their way across the western Darfur region since a rebel revolt in February 2003, forcing more than 150,000 people to flee.

"We are estimating there are 500,000 to 600,000 people with HIV/AIDS in Sudan...but up to the end of March only 11,000 cases were reported," he said, adding that the government had only 400 people on an antiretroviral (ARV) drug treatment.

He said in Sudan, where the World Health Organisation estimates gross national product per capita is $282 a year adjusted for purchasing power, people have to pay $43 a month for their ARV drug treatment.

Siddig said Sudan needed $166 million by 2007 to fight and treat HIV/AIDS.

He added detection systems were weak or absent in most parts of Sudan and many were afraid to find out they were infected or not because of the stigma attached to infection.

Peace in the south would bring immediate risks of a spread of HIV/AIDS to the more than four million internally displaced as they return to their homes over the first year or two.

But Siddig said eventually peace would slow massive population movement and lower the risk of spreading.

The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said in a statement on Wednesday some 95,000 under-fives are estimated to have died last year in southern Sudan of a population of 7.5 million, most of preventable disease.

"A girl born in southern Sudan has a better chance of dying later in life in pregnancy or childbirth than of completing primary school," the statement said.