World Bank head sees Mozambique AIDS spread threat
By Lesley Wroughton
MAPUTO (Reuters) - The head of the World Bank said on Monday he was worried very high rates of HIV/AIDS infections and related tuberculosis in Mozambique could spread as new transport routes are developed to meet growing economic activity.
World Bank President Robert Zoellick met government officials, donors and non-profit groups, urging them to ramp up prevention and awareness efforts among the population.
"As I've thought about some of the economic prospects of Mozambique over the past couple of days, I've grown increasingly concerned about the HIV/Aids issue because I've seen the data," Zoellick told the meeting.
He was speaking on the final day of a visit to Mozambique, the last stop on a four-nation African tour that also took him to Mauritania, Liberia and Ethiopia.
"I am concerned that Mozambique could be at a real tipping point either way," he said.
"With the deeper economic integration and some of the infrastructure projects that would interconnect Mozambique as a country and with its neighbors, I suspect the movement of people will increase the likelihood for HIV/AIDS."
Compared to other countries in Africa, Mozambique's strategy to tackle HIV/AIDS has been slow to develop mainly because its focus has been on rebuilding the country from a 16-year civil war that ended with democratic elections in 1994.
Billions of dollars in aid money is being poured into fighting the disease in developing countries with free testing and treatment for HIV/AIDS sufferers and celebrities like U2 rock star Bono campaigning for funding and more awareness.
To date, the Geneva-based Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has committed $10 billion in 136 countries to support aggressive interventions against all three diseases.
Drug therapy to combat the spread of AIDS is now more widely available in most parts of Africa, while increased funding and lower-cost anti-retrovirals have increased access to treatment.
Malaria is still Mozambique's biggest killer and the cause of more than 30 percent of all deaths in the country, but government data shows that new AIDS cases are expected to increase by 135,000 a year compared to 83,000 in 2002 unless measures are taken to tackle the problem.
The data shows that in 2004, there were about 1.5 million people living with HIV/AIDS in Mozambique, of whom 60 percent were women and 40 percent men.
The epidemic is worse in the more populated southern and central regions of the country and especially around the capital Maputo.
Zoellick said Mozambique's private sector was starting to realize the seriousness of the situation and could play a bigger role.
"You have to customize this for each system. How do you get the message out? For some it's billboards, for some it's the private sector, for some it's the public sector, so I think this will be a critical issue because the irony is that economic integration here can create some other challenges," he said.
Zoellick said HIV/AIDS could not be treated in isolation from related tuberculosis and malnutrition.
Mozambique's Health Minister Paulo Garrido said the government considered HIV/AIDS an "exceptional situation" and had developed a plan to reduce the number of infections.
He also said the government was in the process of changing the country's law to make testing for HIV/AIDS "routine." Until now, testing has been voluntary but under the new law people would be tested unless they objected.
Still, Garrido said moving faster to reduce HIV/AIDS infection rates was hampered by a weak health system and lack of trained medical workers. He said most people in the countryside had to walk 10 km (6 miles) to reach the nearest clinic, although he noted that treatment for HIV/AIDS sufferers had increased to 90,000 people in 2007 from 5,000 in 2004.
(Editing by Charles Dick)