Children growing up in Massachusetts can expect to live almost 100 years; a child in southern Africa is likely to die by 35. Alex de Waal, D.Phil., co-director of Justice Africa, a nonprofit human rights group, said this difference between his own children’s prospects and those of African children is symptomatic of “an inequality in the right to life … that we have never witnessed before.” de Waal was one of 14 speakers from four continents at a November conference held at Yale, “HIV/AIDS as a Threat to Global Security.” The conference was organized by Yale College seniors Genevieve Tremblay and Ziad Haider with sponsorship from several interdisciplinary research groups at Yale. About 70 people attended.

A central theme of the conference was that AIDS imperils global stability by destroying families, disrupting economies and cutting short the lives of teachers, health care workers, farmers and political leaders. Although major epidemics are poised to erupt in India, China, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, nowhere is the possibility of destabilization more threatening than in Africa.

The “secondary impact” of AIDS in Africa, de Waal said, may be even more devastating than “the terrible figures” showing that HIV has infected up to 30 percent of the population in some countries. A wave of social and economic disruptions is “just beginning to crash over southern Africa,” he said. People won’t live long enough to pay off mortgages. Women who know how to survive by foraging during famine will grow too sick to transmit that knowledge. University-educated young people will die a decade into their careers. He compared Africa under these circumstances with a university led by student leaders instead of seasoned academics.

The world needs a “Marshall Plan” to respond to the “catastrophe,” said Paulo Roberto Teixeira, M.D., an AIDS program director in Brazil, which distributes its own generic anti-retroviral drugs gratis. The burden of the epidemic “is a global responsibility,” said Teixeira. “It’s very clear that rich countries will have to pay the bill. Rich countries are rich because they drain the majority of resources from the rest of the world.”

Indeed, Western countries are not paying their share, said Stephen Lewis, United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s campaign for an annual AIDS budget of $10 billion has brought in only 5 percent of that during three years of trying. Lewis said the United States has contributed less than $1 billion of its $2.5 to $3 billion share, based on its gross national product. [In his State of the Union address in late January, President Bush announced a commitment of $15 billion to fight global AIDS over the next five years, including $1 billion for the UN fund, a portion critics called inadequate.]

Women with AIDS, children in tow, ask Lewis, “Why can’t we have the drugs that you have?” He has no answer. “I don’t understand what in God’s name is happening. … We talk about [AIDS] endlessly, and we are losing millions of lives every year that we don’t have to lose. That’s what’s so astonishing: we’re just losing lives and we don’t care. … And I’ll never understand—to my dying day—I’ll never understand it.”