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UN conference to tackle HIV/AIDS


UNITED NATIONS, June 22 (UPI) -- Against the backdrop of controversy and increasing tensions between developing and rich nations, the U.N. General Assembly will hold a special two-day session on HIV/AIDS Monday in New York, to underline the growing concern over the rapid spread of the disease around the world.

As a novelty, the special meeting will include -- along with government delegates and heads of state -- a large number of representatives from pharmaceutical and chemical companies, as well as lobbyists, religious leaders and non-governmental organizations. The session has been configured to be held in panels, to which the press will have free access.

Analysts are expecting a big show of force, with strong demands from underdeveloped countries for less expensive access to drugs to combat the pandemic and the right to bend international rules on patents in order to produce cheaper anti-AIDS medication.

Also expected is a heated confrontation between religious groups, especially Catholics and Muslims, who have expressed opposition to some prevention programs and sex education policies currently being implemented internationally by U.N. agencies and individual governments.

In a report released this week, the Joint U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) pointed out that treating millions of people already infected with HIV will cost $9.2 billion annually, of which developing nations are expected to contribute a third to a half, with the industrialized countries providing the rest.

About $1.8 billion is now being spent on AIDS treatment and prevention programs in the developing world, which is less than a fifth of the projected need, according to estimates from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Since it first appeared about 20 years ago, AIDS has killed some 22 million people around the world. The worst situation is in sub-Saharan nations, which are among the poorest in the world and have fewer resources to combat the disease.

A group of developing countries, informally led by Brazil, South Africa and India, has proposed the production of cheaper, more accessible drugs that are copied from patented medication produced by the industrialized world.

In a statement issued a few days ago in Geneva, they asked for the right to bend the strict patent protection rules of a 1994 international trade treaty, known as TRIPS, in the event of a national health emergency such as the AIDS pandemic.

Rich nations -- in which most of the largest pharmaceutical companies are based -- have warned that weakening the patent protection regulations contained in TRIPS would undermine the efforts made by those companies in researching an effective cure for the disease.

The U.S. government maintains that, without the economic incentives provided by the patents system, "fewer drugs will be available for treating fatal diseases."

Observers have noted, however, that many leading U.S. and European pharmaceutical companies are feeling the pressure and giving in to the demands from Third World countries, especially from Africa, to lower the price of anti-AIDS drugs.

Disputes over treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS are also likely to produce some noisy clashes during the deliberations, according to analysts and U.N. officials.

Conservative Islamic countries, the Catholic Church and some other Christian groups have already expressed firm opposition to the distribution of condoms, the dissemination of information on safe sex and the use of contraceptive methods to prevent the spread of the disease.

An Egyptian delegate has already proposed that the final document include a reference to homosexuality as one of the leading causes of spreading infections, a view that is strongly opposed by pro-gay activists.

Libya, in turn, is opposing any mention of narcotics in the statement, which is expected to be issued at the end of the two-day session.

Feminist issues will also be in the agenda. The U.N. Development Fund for Women, known as UNIFEM, has announced a five-point plan of action "to make women central to every strategy in the fight against HIV/AIDS."

Citing the fact that 1.3 million women died of AIDS last year and that nearly half of new HIV infections affect women, UNIFEM has proposed making male and female condoms "affordable and accessible to all" and the dissemination of AIDS prevention information to adolescents and women who, it claims, "should be involved in the design of policies and education campaigns."

To emphasize the U.N.'s commitment to the issue, the U.N. Secretariat Building in New York will display a huge red AIDS ribbon stretched over 550 of its windows during the deliberations.


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Information in this article was accurate in June 22, 2001. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.