Teklu Belay of the government's HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Office said on Thursday the disease was spreading quickly in the impoverished country, already one of the worst hit in the world by the epidemic.

About three million of Ethiopia's 67 million people are already infected with HIV, giving the country one of the largest caseloads in the world along with South Africa, India and Nigeria.

Teklu did not give mortality rates or prevalence estimates for AIDS, but said the disease was beginning to play havoc with the economy of the country where most people live in dire poverty and 13 million people faced severe food shortages due to drought last year.

Absenteeism

"Studies indicate that due to HIV/AIDS infections, employees in the country's workplaces were absenting themselves between 30 to 240 days annually"

Teklu Belay,
Ethiopia HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Office

"Studies indicate that due to HIV/AIDS infections, employees in the country's workplaces were absenting themselves between 30 to 240 days annually," he said.

Ethiopia's multiplying problems are expected to be discussed at a meeting of the Group of Eight developed nations in the United States in June, with officials saying concerted action is needed to break the cycle of poverty and illness gripping the country.

The government has allowed sales of anti-retroviral drugs, the only medicines which can slow the progression of AIDS, but has not yet implemented plans to begin free distribution of the drugs to those who cannot afford them.

Donors have given the Horn of Africa country more than $60 million for programmes to tackle HIV/AIDS, which the United Nations children's agency UNICEF estimates has already orphaned an estimated one million children under the age of 14.