UN meet: Were losing the fight against AIDS

UNITED NATIONS — The world is losing ground in the fight against HIV and AIDS, UN officials told a special General Assembly conference here June 2.

“Last year saw more new infections and more AIDS-related deaths than ever before,” UN Secretary General Kofi Annan told the conference. “HIV and AIDS expanded at an accelerating rate and on every continent. Treatment and prevention efforts were nowhere near enough.”

AIDS is a problem in all nations. While the less-developed nations of the world have been hit hardest, the disease has taken its toll on rich countries as well. According to a June report by the Centers for Disease Control, more than 1 million people in the U.S. now live with HIV.

Annan said that anti-retroviral treatments, which can indefinitely prolong people’s lives by keeping HIV from turning into AIDS, are woefully missing in less-developed nations. He said only 12 percent of people with HIV in the developing world received the treatments. Young people account for more than half of the world’s new infections, but most youth worldwide did not have access to prevention services.

Peter Piot, executive director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, painted a bleak picture. Unless the epidemic is effectively controlled, it will kill “unbelievably large numbers and wreck entire societies.”

Annan detailed some success stories, where, through effective planning and resource allocation, rates of infection have slowed or been reversed.

“We have seen what happens when prevention programs succeed — as they have in Brazil, Cambodia, Thailand and India,” Annan said. “Some of these have managed to arrest the epidemic at an early stage. Others have reversed the spread after it had already made inroads.”

Officials said that there had been a great increase in the amount of resources worldwide allocated to the fight against AIDS. In 2004, $8 billion was available, four times the figure for 2001.

However, General Assembly President Jean Ping of Gabon, speaking for the conference, said that even though resources had grown considerably, they did not equal the magnitude of the problem. Ping said that governments needed to increase their allocations for the fight against AIDS.

While many structural adjustments are necessary, the main stumbling block is funding. Annan noted that the fight against AIDS requires “increased resources … that means full financing of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, as well as vastly increased funding of organizations that provide direct services to those in need.”

While the U.S., the richest country in the world, provides the largest portion of funding to the various anti-AIDS programs, it still falls short in its responsibilities, many say. The amount it contributes, although in the billions, is tiny considering the size of the U.S. economy.

Three years ago, the world’s richest countries pledged to donate 0.7 percent of their national income to poor nations — much of which would go to AIDS relief. While most of the countries have a plan for attaining that goal, the U.S. does not. Currently, the U.S. donates only 0.16 percent of its income to poor countries. If the U.S. were to meet even the modest goal of 0.7 percent, it would have to multiply its contributions more than 400 percent.

Also, U.S. aid often has strings attached. For example, Brazil had to reject U.S. AIDS money because, under Bush administration regulations, it would have been required to condemn prostitution instead of teaching safe sex. The U.S. often demands that nations teach abstinence-only as AIDS prevention.

The Millennium Development Goals, agreed to by all UN member states, would bring about a major change in developing nations by 2015. Goals include halving poverty and hunger, reducing by three-quarters the rate of maternal mortality, and reducing by two-thirds the mortality rate for children under five. They also call for halting and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

“In that mission, how we fare in the fight against AIDS is crucial,” Annan said. “Halting the spread is not only a Millennium Development Goal in itself; it is a prerequisite for reaching most of the others.

“That is why the fight against AIDS may be the great challenge of our age and generation. Only if we meet this challenge can we succeed in our other efforts to build a humane, healthy and equitable world.”