Most people in the developed world don't realise how bad the AIDS crisis in Africa is. They hear the grim statistics but, while they are shocking, they are difficult to absorb.

One in six adults in Malawi is infected and 46% of pregnant women in Swaziland. Change that to, say, one in six adults in London, or 46% of pregnant women in Brussels - and imagine the reaction.

Five years ago the journalist Stephanie Nolen convinced her editors on Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, that they were missing out on what she considered the biggest story ever.

She was sent to Africa to cover the pandemic and, after years of travelling the continent and reporting from the frontlines of African HIV activism, she has written a book to tackle the developed world's lack of engagement with the issue.

Her book contains 28 personal stories that provide readers with the economic, political, and cultural information needed to understand how the virus became what it is, and what is being done to fight it. It is estimated that there are 28m people infected in Africa, so that's one story for every million.

Many stories are nearly too sad to read. For example, the chapter about Moleen Mudimu in Zimbabwe, who is dying slowly and painfully. The drugs to keep her alive are in the pharmacy down the road and not so long ago she would have been able to buy them. But, although the country once had an excellent healthcare system, now Zimbabwe's political and economic meltdown has fatally compromised the country's ability to offer treatment.

Then there is Tigist Haile Michael, the 14-year-old schoolgirl living in Addis Ababa. Her mum and her stepdad died of AIDS and now she lies awake worrying about rent, food, and school fees for her 10-year-old brother.

And yet some stories are uplifting, such as Cynthia Leshomo's - the bolshy 35-year-old beauty queen from Botswana, who was the winner of the Miss HIV Stigma-Free pageant.

Then there is the amazing Lydia Mungherera, the 46-year-old Ugandan doctor, who is part of the small band of African AIDS professionals or the activist Winstone Zulu from Zambia who speaks at conferences all over the world.

He says that one of the horrible things about the crisis is that death has totally lost its sacredness and its meaning. "I got to Mandla Hill - Lusaka's posh shopping district - and all these people are out shopping and it looks normal. Walk five streets from there to the graveyard and all these people are being buried. How are we still functioning?" he asks.

Although the pandemic is still outstripping the response, it's not all bad news. The numbers on treatment are increasing all the time, with the US administration playing a large part, and there are many more mother-to-child transmissions being prevented.

But, as this book also explains, second-line drugs remain out of reach for almost everyone in Africa, the Global Fund for AIDS remains chronically short of cash and, more importantly, if HIV prevention efforts are not stepped up the modest successes will be difficult to maintain and the treatment queues will get longer.

As Nolen recommends the most valuable thing you can do to fight the AIDS pandemic in Africa is to talk about it. She says that despite a swell of interest at a grassroots level, and international stars, like Bono, and philanthropists taking up the cause, the crisis continues to fail to draw the political and financial response it merits because too few people outside Africa yet understand or care about the issue.

What this book does is humanise the virus, and it makes it easier to understand the almost incalculable devastation that HIV/AIDS is wreaking on Africa. It may make you cry but knowledge is power in the war against what is surely the most complex and long-term problem this world faces. Read this accessible, fascinating book and tell everyone you know about it.

Mary McCarthy