By Patricia Reaney
LONDON (Jan. 25) - AIDS will surpass the Black Death as the world's worst pandemic if the 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS do not get life-prolonging drugs, a public health physician said on Friday.
The illness has killed 25 million people since the early 1980s and an estimated 14,000 people are infected each day with HIV, which destroys the immune system.
Without antiretroviral drugs most people living with HIV/AIDS will die, pushing the death toll beyond the 40 million killed by the Black Death that ravaged Asia and Europe in the 14th century.
The Black Death, or bubonic plague, was caused by a bacterium carried by rats. Infection spread through rat flea bites.
''Despite the impressive advances in medicine since then, HIV/AIDS is likely to surpass the Black Death as the worst pandemic ever,'' said Peter Lamptey, president of the Family Health International AIDS Institute a non-governmental agency based in Arlington, Virginia.
''If we don't improve access to treatment in the next 10-15 years we could have as many as 65 million deaths from this disease,'' he said in a telephone interview.
Ninety-five percent of new infections are in the world's poorest countries where life-prolonging drugs are not available to most sufferers.
The illness has decreased life expectancy, increased infant mortality and orphaned millions of children -- particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, home to more than 28 million HIV/AIDS sufferers.
In a review of the latest information on AIDS, Lamptey said a lack of international and national commitment, inadequate resources and stigma and discrimination were stalling efforts to control the pandemic.
''We urgently need an effective and safe vaccine, an affordable cure, and intensified prevention, care and support programmes,'' he said in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal which focuses on the AIDS catastrophe.
David Berwick, president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Boston, Massachusetts, praised international drugs companies which have slashed the prices of anti-AIDS drugs, but said it was not enough.
''The initial acts of generosity only set the stage for what the world really needs: a dramatic, unprecedented, and unequivocal decision by the boards and executives of several important pharmaceutical companies to make their anti-HIV drugs free,'' he said in the journal.
But Richard Sykes, chairman of drug giant GlaxoSmithKline Plc, said the key problem in getting anti-AIDS drugs to the world's poor was not the cost of the drugs, but the lack of an infrastructure to deliver and administer them.
Malegapuru William Makgoba, president of the Medical Research Council of South Africa, said he was convinced the only real hope of combating the pandemic was an effective vaccine, which he believed would be available in seven to 10 years.