UNITED NATIONS -- A U.N. special envoy on AIDS warned Wednesday that a war against Iraq would eclipse humanitarian efforts around the world, and 29.4 million Africans with the disease would be among those suffering the most.
"Wars divert attention, wars consume resources, wars ride roughshod over external calamities," said Stephen Lewis, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's representative for AIDS issues in Africa. "People with HIV/AIDS are in a race against time. What they never imagined was that over and above the virus itself, there would be a new adversary, and that adversary would be war."
Lewis said experience with the conflict in Afghanistan showed that funding dried up and momentum was lost for humanitarian causes.
"I think exactly the same is almost certain to happen if we have a war in Iraq," he said. "The war in Iraq will be even more consuming because the world is more divided. Fighting AIDS in Africa will receive dreadfully short shrift."
Lewis said that perhaps only a month remained for the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a consortium of nations and nongovernmental organizations supported by the U.N., to raise the estimated $7 billion it needs for this year and 2004.
"The response to the fund has been abysmal," he said. "It is inexplicable and terribly disappointing. We haven't had a contribution to the fund since Germany gave $50 million last July."
Lewis' statements, which he later amplified during an interview, were made at a briefing Wednesday where he spoke passionately about the devastating effects of AIDS on Africa.
His appearance came while U.N. planners were assessing the effects of a possible war against Iraq starting as early as February and the challenges the world organization could face then.
Among the possibilities being examined are that as many as 500,000 people could be injured or traumatized and that more than 2 million refugees could need care. Epidemics of cholera and dysentery are regarded as likely.
One planning document estimated that about 3 million people could face "dire" malnutrition.
The physical damage also could be massive, with roads, bridges, ports and railroads ruined, making it extremely difficult to deliver relief supplies.
At his briefing, Lewis said the ripple effects of the war would come at a crucial juncture in the fight against AIDS in Africa, where "endless numbers of initiatives and projects and programs and models" could be strengthened with additional funds to "prolong and save millions of lives."
"In every country, even under the most appalling of human circumstances, there are signs of determination and hope," he said. "Whether they can be harnessed in the name of social change will be known in the year 2003. God knows, there are incredible hurdles to leap."
He vividly described the tragedy's toll -- focusing tightly on just one hospital in Zambia before expanding the picture.
"I think the nadir was reached for me in the pediatric ward of the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka. The infants were clustered, stick-thin, three and four to a bed, most so weakened by hunger and ravaged by AIDS," he said. " ... Every 15 minutes, another child died, awkwardly covered with a sheet, then removed by a nurse, while the ward was filled with the anguished weeping of mothers. A scene from hell."
Lewis said the problem of children orphaned by AIDS is also growing.
"What is required is a combination of political will and resources," he said. "You will forgive me for the strong language. But ... the time for polite, even agitated entreaties is over. This pandemic cannot be allowed to continue, and those who watch it unfold with a kind of pathological equanimity must be held to account.
"There may yet come a day," Lewis said, "when we have peacetime tribunals to deal with this particular version of crimes against humanity."
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times