'Death Spiral' is exacting tragic toll on Southern Africa, says UN Special Envoy

Published on 22 June 2004

Johannesburg Southern Africa is being debilitated by the ‘death spiral\' caused by the confluence of HIV, food insecurity, the burden on public administration and services, and most critically, the drain on human resources, says James T. Morris, the UN Secretary-General\'s Special Envoy for Humanitarian Needs in Southern Africa.


JOHANNESBURG - Southern Africa is being debilitated by the ‘death spiral' caused by the confluence of HIV, food insecurity, the burden on public administration and services, and most critically, the drain on human resources, said James T. Morris, the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Humanitarian Needs in Southern Africa, during a press conference in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

"The number of trained health practitioners, teachers, and other professionals that are succumbing to HIV/AIDS is causing a truly extraordinary human resources vacuum in societies across the region," Morris said. "It's a tragedy of unrivaled proportions that is destroying the ability of countries to effectively deal with the pandemic and food insecurity."

During his seven-day interagency mission, Morris visited Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Namibia to review how the UN system and the international community can strengthen their assistance to the region's most vulnerable people in battling the effects of food insecurity, HIV/AIDS, and the drain on human resources which the pandemic causes.

"It's impossible to counter the crisis if people aren't on the ground to implement effective programming or to deal with the sick and dying or to care for the unprecedented number of orphans and other vulnerable groups," Morris said. "We must pool our collective resources and speed up our response to help people in their battle to contain the virus."

In all countries visited by the mission, factors such as already weakened infrastructure and services have also been exacerbated by increasing poverty, growing wealth disparity, failure of government priorities, and women's lack of access to productive resources such as seeds, land, and fertilizer. These factors have also undermined people's ability to cope with the crisis.

Southern Africa has the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. There are already 11 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa and the number is expected to reach more than 20 million by the end of the decade.

Malawi has more than 937,000 orphans, half of them attributed to HIV/AIDS. Orphans generally lack basic social services such as health, nutritious food, education, safe water and sanitation. Malawi loses an alarming number of teachers a year to the virus and as a result class sizes can contain as many as 120 pupils.

There are currently about 1.3 million orphans in Mozambique, of which about 370,000 have lost one or both parents to the virus. By 2010, it is expected that there will be nearly 1.8 million orphans, of which more than half will have lost one or both parents to HIV.

About 500 new infections are recorded each day and of these, 50 percent are young people, mostly women aged 25 or younger.

Since 1992, HIV prevalence among women attending antenatal care services in Swaziland has risen from 3.6 percent to 38.6 percent today. The full impact of the epidemic is now being felt with health service institutions and other public services being overburdened as a result.

An estimated 20,000 people require care in Swaziland, but there are only 1,500 hospital beds available. About half of admissions are HIV/AIDS related. Some 60,000 children have already been orphaned by the virus and by 2010, it is expected that Swaziland will have 120,000 orphans out of a population of 930,000 people.

The virus has become Namibia's leading cause of mortality. Nearly a quarter of a million adults and children are infected with HIV, including about 22 percent of pregnant women who receive antenatal care. Average life expectancy is expected to decline to less than 40 years of age by the end of 2005 - 25 percent lower than a situation without HIV.

There are already more than 120,000 orphans and vulnerable children in Namibia - mostly in the country's north. By 2020, it is expected that at the current rate of increase, some 250,000 children will be orphaned because of HIV, which could have catastrophic consequences for the nation's future.

"There are many factors at play here but the end result is that people are dying on a horrific scale and its victims are not getting the help they need," Morris said. "If a 747 aircraft crashed every hour, there'd be an international outcry. That's the death toll we're facing but there is inadequate collective outrage."

"It is encouraging that money from the Global Fund, the US PEPFAR programme, and the World Bank is arriving in the region," Morris said. "It is, however, a concern that it will take time before this money touches the lives of people. We need to be aware of this fact and continue to do what we can to save lives and livelihoods."

The UN has started deploying qualified volunteers across the region to help support government infrastructure and services. Among other recommendations put forward by the mission, UN agencies with specific government counterparts will start an immediate assessment of human resource capacity to identify personnel losses and needs.

The United Nations Consolidated Appeal for southern Africa remains seriously underfunded with only US$327 million (53%) in confirmed donations to date out of a requested US$615 million. In particular, funds for non-food items, such as medicines, healthcare, education, water and sanitation supplies, are desperately needed with only 16 percent of resources for these items having been raised.

Morris was appointed UN Special Envoy in July 2002, four months after he joined the UN World Food Programme as Executive Director. Mission members include representatives from FAO, OCHA, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNICEF, UNFPA, WFP, and WHO. This was his third mission to the region, the others taking place in September 2002 and January 2003.

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