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From Agence France-Presse


Health Ministers Gather to Discuss Africa's Health Problems

BYLINE: By Bronwen Roberts

DATELINE: August 29, 1999 - Windhoek, Namibia

Sub-Saharan African health ministers gather in the Namibian capital Monday for week-long talks on health issues, including the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS in the region, which has 70 percent of the world's infections. The sub-continent's other major killers, malaria and tuberculosis, will also feature prominently at the 49th session of the UN's World Health Organisation Africa committee, said WHO official in Pretoria, Welile Shasha. "(But) the most pressing health issue facing Africa is HIV/AIDS," Shasha told AFP.

The disease killed about two million people in sub-Saharan Africa last year -- over 80 percent of the global total -- making it the leading concern of most of the health ministers from 46 countries due to attend the meeting.

Last year, 70 percent of the world's 5.8 million new HIV infections were recorded in sub-Saharan Africa, according to WHO, which is to present its 1998 annual report for the region at the Windhoek meeting.

"The scourge of HIV/AIDS requires exceptional measures as the African region continues to be the worst affected area in the world," the report says.

"Despite this grim reality, the priority accorded to HIV/AIDS in the region has led to only some modest gains" in combating the disease.

Of the estimated 550 million people in the region, about 23 million are infected with HIV/AIDS.

WHO regional director for Africa Ebrahim Samba in June urged African governments to declare HIV/AIDS a "national emergency."

He said the continent was already home to 95 percent of the world's AIDS orphans and the infection had cut life expectancy from 65 years a decade ago to about 40 years now.

The rapid spread of the infection in Africa -- which has only 10 percent of the world's resources -- is due to the tradition of unprotected sex, a high incidence of sexually-transmitted diseases and poor access to care and information, according to WHO. HIV/AIDS, the fourth leading cause of death worldwide, has overtaken malaria as Africa's number one killer disease, according to WHO. Malaria claims about 1.5 million lives a year.

WHO's African Initiative for Malaria aims to halve the incidence of malaria by 2010 through various measures, including the use of insecticide-treated bednets and drugs.

Also on the agenda for the meeting will be health sector reforms, said Shasha, to "make health care accessible to all people in each country."

The WHO's regional health-for-all policy for the next century and proposals for a mental health strategy and health technology policy will be debated, as will a plan to manage childhood illness.

The annual report covers a range of other health issues, from efforts to reduce the practise of female genital mutilation to intensive polio immunisation programmes.

"With adequate resources, it is expected that polio will be eradicated from the African region by the end of the year 2000 or shortly after," the report says.

In 1997, only 883 clinical cases of polio were reported in sub-Saharan countries, partly due to successful immunisation programmes, from at least 5,000 new cases reported annually in the 1980s.

The report also states that leprosy had been eliminated in most countries in the region by December 1998.

"Countries which are at risk but are unlikely to reach the elimination target (Angola, Ethiopia, Guinea, Madagascar and Mozambique) will need special support to enable them to achieve it."

WHO regional committee for Africa has also taken steps to protect countries from the US "tobacco industry's aggressive effort to create new markets" in developing countries, the report says.

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