If you had to plan an AIDS conference and you wanted to command the world’s attention, you might have chosen the city of Durban in the South African province of KwaZulu Natal for the meeting.

South Africa is one of the few sub-Saharan countries covered well outside the region. Its struggles under apartheid brought it infamy; its post-apartheid political and religious leaders, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, brought it prestige and honor. What was less reported on by the world’s press was how hard AIDS had struck. In South Africa, one in five adults is infected with the HIV virus. Durban has an infection rate approaching 40 percent.

Deciding to hold an AIDS conference in Durban thrust the 12,400 delegates and hundreds of attendant journalists into the epicenter of the epidemic. “There’s nothing like being in the middle of it to understand what that means,” said Sandra Thurman, Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, immediately before the start of the 13th International Conference on AIDS this past July. “What we’re going to walk away with is the enormity of the problem and the huge gap in resources available to deal with it.”

And astonishingly, that is essentially what happened. Astonishing, because recognition of the crisis in Africa by both politicians and the media has been exceedingly delinquent. As Nelson Mandela said during his speech which closed the conference: “AIDS today in Africa is claiming more lives than the sum total of all wars, famines, and floods, and the ravages of such deadly diseases as malaria.”

In 1998, death from all wars in Africa killed 200,000 people. AIDS killed 10 times that number. The statistics are numbing: Six Africans each minute are stricken with the HIV virus; in 10 years the number of AIDS orphans in Africa will reach 29 million, and AIDS is expected to kill between one-third to one-half of today’s 15-year-olds.

Yet it was only in January that the U.N. Security Council—in a session orchestrated by U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and chaired by Vice President Al Gore—declared that AIDS in Africa is a threat to global political stability. Gore’s statement that it was the world’s moral duty to “wage and win a great and peaceful war” against AIDS marked the sudden recognition by the Clinton administration that action in Africa was needed. This year it has been common to hear National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers speak publicly about the epidemic. Both have pressed for greater foreign aid earmarked for AIDS.

Consistent attention to AIDS in Africa has been a long time coming. In 1997, international donor countries spent just $150 million on AIDS prevention in Africa—less than is spent on a single Hollywood blockbuster. Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman, in a searing article written immediately before the Durban conference, indicted “those with power,” especially the international aid organizations, for the neglect. Turf wars and the politics of “demand management” have resulted in the World Health Organization committing only nine professionals to full-time work on AIDS out of a secretariat of 2,000, he noted.

The West did not heed its own early projections of infection rates and death tolls (which tended to be roughly accurate). It lost its sense of urgency about the disease when it became evident by 1990 that there was not going to be a heterosexual epidemic in the United States, Gellman charged. Racism led to inattention when AIDS was perceived as being “no longer a threat to the West.” And in 1996, when the cocktail of anti-retroviral agents was discovered to be effective at staving off the fatal complications of the virus, many convinced themselves that a global pandemic would be escaped “without grave results.” This conclusion was reached despite the fact that the cost of bringing the drug cocktail to Africa and the rest of the developing world was unthinkable.

Just as the diplomats and politicians avoided dealing with AIDS in Africa, so too did most in the media. A few, such as Mark Schoofs of The Village Voice, made major reporting commitments, but for most the story never rose to crisis stature. The tiny news hole for international coverage rarely seemed to have space for a chronic problem troubling the African continent. But when the political climate changed in January, so too did the media’s attention to the story—a trend that accelerated in April after Schoofs won both the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting and an Overseas Press Club award for his eight-part series.

The media turned en masse to AIDS coverage in the weeks before the Durban conference. Startling statistics often led the pieces, when heart-rending anecdotes did not. Suddenly journalists were employing dramatic language—such as “plague,” “apocalypse,” “holocaust,” “ground zero,” even “heart of disease’s darkness”—and using emotional images such as abandoned infants and orphaned toddlers to draw attention to the epidemic. Stories drew connections between the African victims of the virus and American sufferers. Articles and tape packages focused on the rapaciousness of drug companies that price their therapies well beyond what the world’s poor can afford.

In short, most in the media are now doing what they normally do when an international crisis is inaugurated: They are flocking to cover the emergency now that it is government-certified. They are emphasizing the sensational (easy to do in this instance!). And they are dwelling on the risk factors and ramifications for American individuals and companies. But at least, now, they are covering the story. It remains to be seen whether they will stay with it.

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