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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 104

Despite Global Efforts Against AIDS, 40.3 Million Infected with HIV Virus

By Thalif Deen - Inter Press Service

The AIDS epidemic, described by the United Nations as the "most destructive in human history" and accounting for more than 25 million deaths so far, is still a growing threat to global progress and stability.

"AIDS is one of the greatest leadership challenges of our time," says U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a new report released here, in advance of a U.N. special session on AIDS scheduled to take place next week.

"Without urgent and long-term action," he warned, "the epidemic will continue to take an unacceptable toll of death and suffering in countries and communities throughout the world."

The high-level meeting of about 191 senior ministers, slated for May 31-Jun. 2, will take stock of the successes and failures in combating the deadly disease that continues to outpace the worldwide response.

"Only a fraction of the 40.3 million people living with the HIV virus are even aware of their infection," says the U.N. study. "And fewer still have access to the HIV medicines they need to stay alive."

The statistics are staggering, according to the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS. Besides the 25 million lives lost to AIDS, the disease has also made orphans out of 15 million children.

"The face of AIDS is increasingly young and female, and more than 17 million women worldwide are now living with HIV," says the coalition.

After 25 years of the epidemic, where has the international community gone wrong in fighting the disease? Is it lack of cheaper drugs? Lack of resources? Or lack of political will?

"The main thing we learned during these 25 years is that prevention works, and that it requires an ongoing, daily commitment to ensure that prevention is for life," says Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).

"All too often, however, we cut short on this principle in the hope of 'instant' or 'easy' success. In addition, stigma and discrimination, gender-based violence, and the sexual and economic subordination of women and girls continue -- and as a result, fuel the epidemic," Obaid told IPS.

She said that moving towards universal access to prevention, treatment, care and support implies that HIV prevention must be at a scale and intensity that is enough to make a critical difference.

"We currently reach less than 10 percent of pregnant women to prevent mother-to-child transmission, and no more than 26 percent of sex workers have any access to HIV prevention support," she added.

Also by today, 90 percent of young men and women aged 15 to 24 should have had access to information and services to prevent HIV/AIDS. Sadly, no country in the world has met that target, she said.

"World leaders and global organizations need to be judged by the effectiveness of their work and results. We all need to improve, scale up and work more urgently to support evidence-based prevention methods," Obaid said.

Lynn Heinisch, of the international humanitarian organization CARE, told IPS the world has been slow to wake up to the crisis.

"Most people did not act as if the house was on fire. Even now that we know the statistics and know that AIDS is devastating entire communities, there is a lack of urgency," she said.

"We should do everything possible to fight this pandemic. That means informing people of the ways to protect themselves, forging stronger links between grassroots and government efforts to prevent the spread of HIV and help those affected by AIDS, and ensuring more resources for the people on the front lines," Heinisch added.

It also means, she said, that leaders must show political will and courage in making this issue front-and-centre, and lead the discussion and the response. The rhetoric does not always match the reality on the ground.

For example, the international community is talking about universal access, yet grassroots organizations working in the most-affected countries have not been sufficiently involved in shaping the strategy.

She pointed out that CARE recently surveyed civil society and government representatives in six countries (Kenya, Malawi, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Britain).

Five years after the U.N.'s Declaration of Commitment to fight AIDS, they do not have a practical understanding of the declaration nor how to implement its recommendations in their communities in a way that will work.

"If we are going to beat AIDS, civil society groups and their governments need to be strengthened with financial and technical assistance, access to information, and systems that help them achieve the goals," Heinisch added.

At a press conference Tuesday, Yolonda Richardson, president of the Washington-based Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA), called for a major shift in prevention, care and treatment -- specifically to address the realities of women's lives.

"We will not turn around the epidemic unless we take bold actions that redirect policies, funding and programmes to reflect the global face of AIDS -- which is increasingly women and girls," Richardson warned.

In the United States, AIDS is now the primary cause of death for African-American women 25-34 years old, according to CEDPA, which is calling for comprehensive HIV prevention programmes that include public education, condom distribution and equal access to reproductive health care, especially girls and women.

In a statement released early this week, the Washington-based Africa Action said that 25 years into the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Africa is "ground zero" of this devastating crisis -- a continent which is home to more than 25 million of the 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide.

"U.S. and international policies have fundamentally failed to address the roots and the impact of this pandemic, particularly in Africa. Across the continent, inadequate resources and other challenges continue to fuel HIV/AIDS and undermine African efforts to respond," the activist group said.

Asked what can be done to remedy the situation in the African continent, Obaid told IPS: "All African leaders need to continue speaking out openly and honestly about HIV, and hold themselves accountable for real results and real progress."

She also said they should make all the budgetary allocations to fighting HIV/AIDS that they have committed themselves to. "We need national responses that involve all government ministries, all sectors of society, women, men, youth and community leaders. We need strong and well-funded ministries of health and other health providers that will provide prevention, treatment and care."

In sub-Saharan Africa, she said, women and girls aged 15 to 24 account for 76 percent of those living with HIV. "So, to stop AIDS in Africa or in any other part of the world, we must promote empowerment of women to make decisions to protect themselves. We must help the young to help themselves. We must support them and unleash their energies to stop and conquer HIV/AIDS."

"After all, young women and men, are not asking what we can do for them, rather they ask us to support what they can do for a world free of HIV/AIDS," Obaid added.

- Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency -

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