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Officials: World losing AIDS fight

/ Source: staff and news service reports

The world is losing the battle against HIV infection and AIDS and must do more to halt the deadly pandemic, U.S. Health Secretary Tommy Thompson said Monday, marking World AIDS day in Zambia, one of the worst-affected nations in Africa.

“We appear to be losing the fight against AIDS at the moment. We need to redouble our efforts. This war has more casualties than any other war as we are losing three million people every year,” Thompson said. Thompson heads an 80-member delegation visiting an AIDS-devastated Africa.

There were glimmers of hope with a new United Nations plan set to roll drug treatment out to sufferers in the Third World. The U.N. said Monday it was launching a program to rush life-saving anti-retroviral AIDS drugs to three million of the world’s poor in a $5.5 billion emergency strategy to fight a disease now killing 8,000 a day.

“The WHO (World Health Organization) has pre-qualified a single pill... a simplified regimen which 20 countries will begin to use within the next six months. This will reduce the costs of AIDS drugs (per patient) to $300 a year,” said WHO Director General Jong-Wook Lee.

As world leaders called for urgent action to fight the scourge that has devastated many of the globe’s poorest countries, the Vatican defended its controversial position against advocating condoms as protection.

Millions of people marched in parades and held prayers around the world. Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for “lightning” action to fight the disease that is killing and infecting people at record rates.

While China aired its first officially backed TV ad for condoms, the Vatican said fidelity, chastity and abstinence were the best ways to fight HIV/AIDS in a “pan-sexualist society.”

In a clear reference to condoms, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan said information campaigns should not be “based on policies that foster immoral and hedonistic lifestyles and behavior, favoring the spread of the evil.”

40 million affected

World AIDS Day came amid news of a new $5.5 billion United Nations emergency strategy to supply badly needed drugs to fight the disease that now infects 40 million people around the world.

At least 6 million people living with HIV-AIDS in developing countries urgently need anti-retroviral drug treatment to stay alive and healthy, but only between 300,000 and 400,000 are getting the costly drugs. The plan aims to get the treatment to half the 6 million people by the end of 2005.

“Eight thousand people die every day and we recognize this as a moral imperative to act,” Dr. Bjorn Melgaard, a senior World Health Organization official, told reporters in Bangkok.

Estimates released by UNAIDS last week showed deaths and new cases reached unprecedented levels in 2003 and were set to rise further as the pandemic maintains its deadly grip on sub-Saharan Africa and spreads across Eastern Europe and Asia.

AIDS will have killed about 3 million people this year. Five million more will have been infected.

Leading U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs attacked President Bush for pushing war and neglecting the developing world by spending a small fraction of what America invests in its military on the fight against poverty and AIDS.

“Development was pushed off the world’s agenda this year by an agenda about war,” said Sachs, who is a special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Medecins Sans Frontieres said governments should provide AIDS drugs free under the new plan and pharmaceutical firms should cut prices further.

“For the poorest no price will be affordable: governments of both developing and developed countries must meet these costs,” the medical charity’s president, Morten Rostrup, said in a statement.

Africa hardest-hit

In Africa, only 2 percent of the people who need the drugs get them, WHO said.

Indeed, the steady advance of HIV and AIDS in Africa is devastating rural households, the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization said.

About one in five adults in Zambia has HIV, the virus which causes AIDS, making it one of the worst affected countries in southern Africa, the epicenter of the pandemic.

“HIV/AIDS strikes indiscriminately, but the poorest rural communities and households are always hit hardest,” said Sissel Ekaas, the director of FAO’s Gender and Population Division.

“For women who have lost a husband to the disease, it can mean losing everything else as well — property or assets, such as land, farm equipment or livestock, effectively undermining their capacity to earn an income and grow food to feed themselves, their children and the orphans they are often caring for,” she said.

The most-affected African countries could lose up to 26 percent of their farm labor force, the FAO said.

The disease is devastating families, communities and economies across sub-Saharan Africa, which now has an estimated 26.6 million people with HIV/AIDS — more than the rest of the world put together.

Ebrahim Samba, the WHO’s Africa director, told Reuters he was confident modern drugs would defeat Africa’s stubborn AIDS stigma by turning a fatal disease into a manageable condition, but it would take time to change attitudes.

“Working in Africa, you have to be pathologically optimistic. A pessimist doesn’t survive here,” he said.

Thompson pledged U.S. help to reduce transmission of HIV from mothers to children in Africa by at least 15 percent.

President George W. Bush has promised a $15 billion, five-year plan to combat AIDS, especially in Africa.

But he came under fire from opponents and AIDS activists when he asked the House of Representatives, led by his own Republican party, for only $2 billion next year — $1 billion less than expected for the program.

Bush has insisted he will find the full $15 billion.

Randall Tobias, Coordinator for the U.S. global fund on AIDS, said Washington intended to “... provide care for 10 million people and provide drugs to two million people as we expand the fight against HIV and AIDS.

In early November the U.S. ambassador in Lusaka announced a $350 million aid package over seven years to help fight AIDS and promote development in Zambia, whose struggling copper and cobalt-based economy leaves the country heavily dependent on foreign donors to fund key health programs and fight poverty.

In Livingstone, Thompson signed a five-year deal for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to help HIV care and prevention in Zambia, where lawmakers have recommended castrating child rapists to stem a tide of child rape cases exacerbated by a widespread belief that sex with a minor can cure AIDS.

Spreading worldwide

In China, the government says at least 840,000 people are HIV-positive and fears 10 million might become infected by 2010 without proper prevention.

Premier Wen Jiabao visited the AIDS ward at a Beijing hospital to show support, and health workers were dispatched to construction sites and schools throughout the capital to teach AIDS prevention.

“Migrant workers are an at-risk group,” said Li Xiaohong of the Beijing Center for Disease Control, which volunteered some of its staff for the effort. “They only know that condoms can prevent pregnancy.”

In India, where an estimated 4 million people have been infected with HIV, actor Richard Gere spent a week mobilizing local sports stars and celebrities from the country’s film industry to campaign against the spread of the disease in South Asia.

A recent U.S. government report predicted the number of HIV-positive people in India could jump to between 20 million and 25 million by 2010 — a figure the Indian government rejects.

More than 2,000 students joined a “walk for life” rally in New Delhi, the capital. In Bombay, volunteer groups planned exhibitions, street plays and seminars as part of what they said was a weeklong campaign to “fight the stigma and discrimination against AIDS victims.”

In the Asia-Pacific region 1 million people were infected this year, taking the total to more than 7 million.

Several countries, including China and India, face major epidemics unless effective action is taken, experts say.

In Cambodia, the worst AIDS-affected country in Asia, about 3,000 students, activists and dancers in white and red T-shirts paraded through Phnom Penh before piling into buses to spread the anti-AIDS message in the countryside.

In Singapore women in mini-skirts and tight spandex tops handed out free condoms on the wealthy island-state where HIV infections rose seven percent in the first 10 months of 2003.

More needs to be done

AIDS, first diagnosed in 1981 and originally called gay related immune disorder, or GRID, attacks the human immune system. There is no known cure, though various treatments have worked to significantly extend the lives of AIDS patients.

The United Nations said last week that more people than ever died or were infected by HIV/AIDS in 2003, with 3 million deaths and another 5 million cases of infection.

Globally, between 34 million and 46 million people are believed to have the virus, although accurate numbers are still hard to come by because of shortfalls in reporting and poor health care in many countries.

And in the developing world, the vast majority of HIV and AIDS sufferers don’t have access to life-extending antiretroviral drugs because of their high cost, the World Health Organization said.

In Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, which has the highest rate of HIV infection in Southeast Asia, some 1,000 people wearing white caps and T-shirts adorned with educational AIDS slogans participated in a rally held in the city center.

After sobering speeches, performers deployed colorful wooden cutout figures to represent infected people. “I’m HIV-positive, but why do you regard me as animal?” read one cutout. “I’m HIV-positive, but you can kiss me without getting infected,” read another.

Some 160,000 of Cambodia’s estimated 13 million people are HIV-positive or living with full-blown AIDS. Up to 90,000 infected people have died since the first case of the disease here was discovered more than a decade ago.

Of nearly 8,000 businesses in 103 countries surveyed for a World Economic Forum’s Global Health Initiative report released Monday, 47 percent felt that HIV will have some impact on their business.

Thirty-six percent of business leaders did not - or could not - estimate how many of their employees had HIV.

“Just as the efforts by most governments have been insufficient, the overall private sector response to date is inadequate,” said Kate Taylor, director of the initiative. “A great deal more needs to be done.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.