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Anti-AIDS Drive Still Falling Short After 25 Years

Reuters, May 30, 2006

by Irwin Arieff

UNITED NATIONS, May 30 (Reuters) - Twenty-five years after AIDS was first recognized, the world is still falling short in its battle against the disease with severe gaps in prevention and treatment, the United Nations said on Tuesday. "Despite some notable achievements, the response to the AIDS epidemic to date has been nowhere near adequate," said UNAIDS, the U.N. agency that coordinates the global campaign against the pandemic. Since U.S. doctors first described the disease in June 1981, AIDS and the HIV virus that causes it have spread relentlessly from a few widely scattered hot spots to virtually every country in the world, infecting 65 million people and killing 25 million, UNAIDS said in a 630-page report. Researchers have produced "mountains of evidence" about how to prevent and treat this disease, said the report, based on data gathered from 126 countries since December 2005. But anti-AIDS initiatives and their results vary widely from country to country, and many are falling short of the benchmarks set in a landmark high-level U.N. General Assembly session in 2001, UNAIDS said. "Because this pandemic and its toll cannot be reversed in the short term, we need to sustain a full-scale response for the next decades," it said on the eve of a follow-up session opening on Wednesday in New York. Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, told a news conference he expected long-term commitments at this week's meeting, noting that spending on AIDS had reached its target for 2005 with expenditures of $8.3 billion compared to $1.6 billion in 2001. He said it was time to move beyond short-term crisis management and hoped for $20 billion annually by 2010. Among successes since the last special session, the report cited evidence that more people are using condoms, having fewer sex partners and starting sexual activity later in life. PEAKED IN LATE 1990S The global AIDS incidence rate is believed to have peaked in the late 1990s. About 1.3 million people in the developing world are now on life-extending antiretroviral medicines, which saved about 300,000 lives last year alone. Still, some 4.1 million people were newly infected and 2.8 million died in 2005. There were 4.9 million new infections and 3.1 million deaths in 2004. Fewer than half of young people were knowledgeable about AIDS. Among those injecting illegal drugs or having homosexual sex, few received preventive services last year. The global supply of condoms was less than 50 percent of what was needed, and antiretroviral drugs, while more widely available, remained costly and hard to get. Ignored in many countries are prostitutes, said Thoraya Obeid, the Saudi Arabian executive director of the U.N. Population Fund. She said they also had the right to prevention and treatment, especially since many were poor women or girls, sold into prostitution and victims of violence. However, a final statement by governments at the conference this week is not expected to refer to prostitutes, drug users or homosexuals, due to objections from Islamic nations, some Catholic countries and the United States which fear that merely mentioning these groups would endorse their behavior. Infected individuals still suffer from ostracism and discrimination, while the vast majority of the world's 40 million infected people have never been tested for HIV and are unaware of their status, the report said. While $8.9 billion is expected to be available in 2006 to combat AIDS in developing countries, $14.9 billion will be needed, UNAIDS said. By 2008, it predicted, $22.1 billion would be needed, including $11.4 billion for prevention plans alone. The report called for more and better-targeted education and prevention strategies, more treatment opportunities, and more drug research, particularly on drugs for children, whose needs "have been largely left out of the research agenda."

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