Who's Counting: Costs For AIDS in Africa

AIDS drugs are much more costly than these measures, but even here there is a little room for maneuver. Knock-off drugs from Brazil and India might be used and American drug companies might come up with cheaper versions of their drugs.

South African President Mbeki’s flirtation with the discredited notion that HIV is not the cause of AIDS is clearly wrong-headed and irresponsible, but he’s right that a much less costly approach than the drug cocktails used in this country must be found. The analogue of a small transistor radio is what’s needed, not that of a huge home entertainment center.

We can, of course, pin our hopes on a scientific breakthrough and a vaccine or even a cure, but real breakthroughs are, by their very nature, impossible to predict. Imagine someone in 1890 forecasting that in about 15 years we would have a special relativity theory. If the theory’s advent could be predicted, the theory would, in a sense, already exist.

Even without breakthroughs we should anticipate some improvements in AIDS treatment and some changes in behavior. Since the age-specific death rates for people in their 20s and 30s are likely to improve, the decline in the average life span will eventually be reversed. This does not help, and very likely nothing will help, the estimated 20 to 35 million people already infected in sub-Saharan Africa, roughly 70 percent of all the HIV-infected people in the world. Nor does it help those countries where more than a third of the teenagers are infected and likely to die.

Money Stretched Thin

We should not kid ourselves about what the $1 billion loan or even a $5 billion grant will do for those already infected. One billion dollars, even if it went not for public health care measures, but exclusively towards those infected, would result in only $30 going to each person infected. By contrast, the regimen of AIDS drugs offered in the U.S. costs about $12,000 per patient annually!

AIDS has overtaken malaria as the number one killer in Africa but, unlike malaria, it threatens to lead to widespread economic collapse. Five billion dollars earmarked for AIDS programs in sub-Saharan Africa is not an unreasonable expenditure. It is what a jury initially awarded last year to six people severely burned in a GM car, it’s considerably less than what was spent on the military operation in Kosovo, and, as I said, it’s only 5 percent of what was spent on the Marshall Plan

On the other hand, of course, in this summer of our content we could just ignore AIDS in Africa.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos is the author of several bestselling books, including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. His “Who’s Counting?” column on ABCNEWS.com appears on the first day of every month.

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