Thousands of activists mark World AIDS Day

Tuesday, December 2, 2003

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Tens of thousands of activists and health workers rallied worldwide Monday to mark World AIDS Day, and officials hailed new initiatives, new funding and a new pill to fight the disease that has infected 40 million people and kills more than 8,000 every day.

The World Health Organization and UNAIDS promised cheaper drugs, simpler treatment regimens and more money as part of a campaign launched in Nairobi to provide 3 million HIV-infected people with the latest drugs available by the end of 2005 in a $5.5 billion effort.

WHO also certified an innovative, generic drug for treating HIV that combines three essential anti-retroviral drugs into one pill to be taken twice a day. WHO and UNAIDS promised to promote international agreements to streamline treatment programs.

"In two short decades, HIV/AIDS has become the premier disease of mass destruction," said Dr. Jack Chow, the assistant director-general of WHO. "The death odometer is spinning at 8,000 lives a day and accelerating."

Medecins Sans Frontieres, an aid agency that has led efforts to simplify HIV treatment, welcomed the announcement but said funding will be critical.

"The treatment has to be free; if the treatment is not free, they will not meet their goals," said Dr. Morten Rostrup, president of the group's international council.

Thousands of activists marched and rallied in Nairobi to show support for people infected with HIV and to demand access to essential drugs.

'A tragic mistake'

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson appealed in Zambia for redoubling efforts against HIV. Africa, the hardest-hit continent, cannot fight the pandemic alone, he said.

"We need America, the European Union and everybody," he said. "Nobody is going to be spared unless we all come together in the fight against this disease."

Former South African President Nelson Mandela urged the world to fight the stigma associated with HIV, saying it was stopping people from being tested and treated.

UNAIDS estimates 3 million people have died this year. WHO says more than 5 million HIV patients need anti-retroviral drugs, but fewer than 400,000 have access to them.

Anti-retroviral drugs allow HIV patients to live a relatively normal life by preventing the development of full-blown AIDS. The drugs improve their health, but they remain infected and can transmit the disease.

India announced plans to spend $44 million to provide free anti-retroviral drugs to 100,000 AIDS patients, a "significant scale-up" in the fight against the disease in a country that has the world's second- largest number of HIV-infected people. Until now, India has focused on prevention, but starting April 1, 2004, it will offer free drugs at government hospitals.

Health workers hit Beijing's streets to teach prevention in a country whose leaders have promised to fight the disease aggressively. The China Daily newspaper, citing a survey by the Health Ministry, WHO and UNAIDS, said 840,000 Chinese were HIV-positive and 80,000 had developed AIDS.

But Siri Tellier, head of the U.N. Theme Group on HIV/AIDS in China, said it was not known whether that figure was accurate. She said there has been no widespread blood testing in the country, and she urged Beijing to improve its monitoring.

The British government said it will double its funding to UNAIDS next year to $10.2 million.

"HIV/AIDS destroys families and threatens to break down the fabric of whole societies, but I believe the challenges ahead can be met," said International Development Secretary Hilary Benn.

Botswana President Festus Mogae said people must take responsibility for utilizing the free anti-retroviral therapy, HIV testing and the prevention of mother-to-child transmission services that are available.

"Unless we take it upon ourselves to use condoms and prevent HIV infection, we have only ourselves to blame for our plight," Mogae said.

Malawi's government pledged to provide free AIDS medicine to 50,000 people by 2005, paid for by the Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Vice President Justin Malewezi said.

In Liberia, which is struggling to emerge from 14 years of conflict, U.S. Ambassador John Blaney called peace the main prerequisite, since AIDS is spread in warring West African nations by troops and the rape of women and girls.

Swedish activists organized a conference called "Hope, Insight and Vision" that included conferences on children and HIV, the medical outlook for a vaccine and treatments.

Even nations with a smattering of AIDS cases held events Monday aimed at boosting awareness.

In Albania, with only 116 registered cases since 1993, scores of high school students marched in Tirana with candles and a banner that read, "Protect Yourself and Others."

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