The warning followed the launch of a global campaign focusing on the impact of HIV/AIDS on children on Monday.
"Unofficial reports say that, among blood donors, a low percentage test HIV positive, but that percentage is increasing fast," Ben Parker, UNICEF communication officer, told IRIN in Nairobi. "HIV is getting a grip."
The conditions in southern Sudan were conducive to an explosive spread of HIV/AIDS, UNICEF noted, and health experts feared a disaster was on the horizon.
The signing of a comprehensive peace agreement in January, which ended the country’s 21-year civil war, had resulted in massive increases in population movement, social and political change, and increased mobility, trade and investment within Sudan and with neighbouring countries.
"The war that has been fought in the south has taken its toll on southerners. If that war starts again [HIV/AIDS], we are going to lose our young people, and there will be no development in the country... the human resources that were going to be built to develop the country would be lost to AIDS. So we are worried about it if it's not well-controlled," Salva Kiir Mayardit, President of southern Sudan, told UNICEF in the southern Sudanese capital of Juba on Thursday.
Greater freedom for people to come and go from neighbouring countries with very high prevalence rates increases the potential for HIV/AIDS transmission, UNICEF warned. However, the limited statistics available showed that HIV/AIDS had already gained a foothold within the country.
"HIV is already here - tens of thousands of people in southern Sudan are infected. It’s not a disease of foreigners or outsiders," Parker noted.
According to a recent survey, the current level of awareness of HIV and its transmission among southern Sudanese was very low.
UNICEF feared this might create problems with returning internally displaced persons and refugees as they might be blamed for bringing HIV into the host communities. It could also create high levels of stigma and discrimination for people living with HIV/AIDS.
"Children are the forgotten side of AIDS. Southern Sudan needs the younger generation to re-build the region. It can’t afford babies to be born with HIV or teenagers to catch it. They are counting on them," Parker added.
The HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the entire territory of Sudan is estimated at 2.6 percent. Whereas reliable prevalence figures for southern Sudan are not available, it is generally assumed that rates in the south are higher.
The greatest challenge facing south Sudan’s HIV programming, UNICEF observed, was that HIV/AIDS was not seen as a top priority in southern Sudan due to the fact that the published prevalence rate was relatively low and because there were many other overwhelming issues to address.
In southern Sudan, one in four children die before the age of five, acute malnutrition among children under the age of five is one of the highest in the world (21.5 percent), the maternal mortality rate is 1,700 per 100,000 live births, and access to health services, education, and clean water is minimal.
The lack of comprehensive baseline data on HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention behaviour patterns, the situation of orphans and vulnerable children, and prevalence rates in the general population further hampered agencies efforts to mobilise and allocate resources and prioritise projects.
The lack of health care facilities and skilled health workers made treatment and care of people living with HIV/AIDS virtually impossible.
According to Parker, there were no anti-retro-viral drugs available in southern Sudan, although those who could afford them were able to get them in Khartoum or Uganda. "But they are very expensive and their administration probably not well supervised," he noted.
He added that there were only 12 places in the whole of southern Sudan where pregnant women could get drugs to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child. The oldest of these clinics had been operational for no longer than 6 months.
"We need a whole bouquet of maternal health services, which would include measures to prevent [HIV] transmission," Parker said.
The quality of antenatal care was so low, he added, that it did not make sense to focus on one disease and one drug, only.
"We have a chance not to repeat the mistakes of other countries where it got out of control. It is relatively low now - let’s keep it that way and drive it out," Parker urged. "All the benefits of peace can be wiped out by this disease."