Science in Society Archive

Unravelling AIDS

What is the real extent of the AIDS epidemic? Why does AIDS attract so much controversy? Do conventional anti HIV drugs do more harm than good? Are there safe and effective treatments that can be made widely available at affordable costs?

This special mini-series is part of an in-depth report, Unravelling AIDS

AIDS the Global Pandemic?

Frightening figures on the AIDS pandemic make headlines all over the world. But do the figures conceal the real causes of human suffering? Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports

UNAIDS figures (see Box) released at the end of December 2003 claim 40 million affected with HIV or AIDS worldwide, and within the year, three million people have died while five million new cases were recorded, the vast majority in sub-Saharan African. AIDS is also reported to be fast becoming a major problem in China, India and Russia.

HIV/AIDS worldwide

  • At the end of 2003, an estimated 40 million people worldwide - 37 million adults and 2.5 million children younger than 15 years - are living with HIV/AIDS. Approximately two-thirds (26.6 million) live in Sub-Saharan Africa; another 18 percent (7.4 million) live in Asia and the Pacific.
  • Worldwide, approximately 11 in every 1000 adults aged 15 to 49 are HIV-infected. In Sub-Saharan Africa, about 8 percent of all adults in this age group are HIV-infected.
  • An estimated 5 million new HIV infections occurred worldwide during 2003; that is, about 14,000 infections each day. More than 95 percent of these new infections occurred in developing countries, and nearly 50 percent were among females.
  • In 2003, approximately 2,000 children under the age of 15 years, and 6,000 young people aged 15 to 24 years became infected with HIV every day.
  • In 2003 alone, HIV/AIDS-associated illnesses caused the deaths of approximately 3 million people worldwide, including an estimated 500,000 children younger than 15 years.

These horrendous figures of the "global AIDS pandemic" are widely reported, not only in newspapers and popular magazines, but also in scientific journals.

Yet, practically every aspect of the global AIDS pandemic has been challenged, from the reality of the AIDS disease to the efficacy and safety of expensive treatments with conventional pharmaceutical drugs. Big money is involved, which invariably clouds the horizons.

On World AIDS Day, 1 December 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNAIDs in Geneva unveiled their "3 by 5" plan to provide anti-retroviral drugs to 3 million in developing countries by 2005. This represents only about half of the people worldwide most in need of treatment, and will cost US$5.5 billion.

In his 2003 State of the Union address, George Bush pledged a total of $15 billion over five years to fight HIV/AIDS in developing countries, especially in Africa. Unfortunately, only 2 billion of the expected 3 billion was available in the first year, and funding appeared to be tied to the purchase of conventional pharmaceutical drugs and the country's acceptance of GM crops. The allocated budget for 2005 is even less generous. The White House has requested only $2.8 billion for programs to fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria globally, with just a portion of this money going to Africa.

In India, where more people are said to be infected with HIV than any country except South Africa, Health Minister Sushma Swaraj said the government was in negotiations with Indian drug companies to get "rock-bottom drug prices" for AIDS patients. Indian patients could receive a commonly used triple-drug regimen for less than US$0.20 a day compared to the current cost of at least US$1 a day, an industry source said.

Across the rest of Asia, in China, Japan and Thailand, celebrities are lending their glitter to the fight against AIDS and the arrival of big bucks. Spending on AIDS rose 50 percent from US$3.1 billion in 2002 to US$4.7 billion in 2003, although it was still only half of what is needed, said Peter Piot, UNAIDS executive director.

In this special series, we look into the real extent of the AIDS epidemic, and some of the controversies surrounding the diagnosis and causes of the disease, also the side effects of expensive conventional anti HIV drugs in contrast to some safe and effective treatments that can be made widely available at affordable costs.

We show that the AIDS epidemic can be effectively addressed without being turned into a global political football by powerful vested interests.

Article first published 25/03/04


  1. UNAIDS. AIDS Epidemic Update, December, 2003.
  2. "Bush's budget undermines Aids Fight - Africa action" Accra Mail 9 February 2004 <>
  3. "U.S. needs good plan to give AIDS funds-health chief" by Shapi Shacinda, 01 Dec 2003
    "New drug plan marks World AIDS Day", AFP, Bangkok, Taipei Times, 2 December 2003.

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