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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

UN: AIDS Epidemic Set to Surge

BARCELONA, Spain -- AIDS will claim an additional 65 million lives by 2020, more than triple the number who died in the first 20 years of the epidemic, unless more countries vastly expand their prevention programs, according to the first long-range forecast of the epidemic from the United Nations.

The forecast is a departure from earlier estimates, which had predicted that the epidemic may have reached its peak in some countries by 2000. It is part of a grim report that was issued Tuesday in advance of the 14th International AIDS Conference, which begins here on Sunday.

The epidemic is still in its early stages, the UN warned, with HIV being transmitted in almost every part of the world, including countries where rates had been very high and others where they had been stable.

The alarming extent of the spread is disproving theories that the number of infections might reach a plateau in heavily hit countries as the number of individuals at risk for HIV declines.

AIDS is the fourth-leading cause of death in the world. Without a sharp drop in the number of new infections, the AIDS death toll by 2020 will rival the number of people killed in wars in the entire 20th century.

The AIDS crisis is being hastened by wars, famine and political turmoil. Zimbabwe, for example, according to UNAIDS statistics, has the second-highest HIV rate in the world with 33 percent of adults infected with the virus.

With its economy in disarray, HIV infections have exploded. And many of the millions of people already infected are getting sicker and dying far faster because of a severe shortage of food and basic medicines.

"It's devastating," said Maria Massunda, chairwoman of the Zimbabwe AIDS Network, an umbrella group for AIDS service organizations. Between 2,000 and 5,000 Zimbabweans are dying of the disease every week, health workers estimate.

As many as 900,000 children have been orphaned in the southern African country of 12.5 million.

Though Botswana has the world's highest HIV rate with 39 percent of adults infected, that relatively wealthy country has a stable government and a deep political commitment to tackle the crisis. With political violence roiling Zimbabwe over the past two years, its economy has collapsed.

The health care system is in tatters and food is running out as the country suffers a hunger crisis caused by drought and government seizures of white-owned commercial farmland.

The hunger crisis has also weakened people not yet infected, making it easier for the virus to take root in their bodies after exposure. And many are being exposed in the cauldron of risky behavior that followed the country's economic collapse, Massunda said.

Women are bartering sexual favors for food. Millions of unemployed people, frustrated at their poverty, have turned to sex for an escape. (AP, NYT)