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Inter Press Service
HEALTH: AIDS Prevention Stalling in Rich Nations, UN Warns
Thalif Deen
June 21, 2001
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 21 (IPS) - The United Nations pooh-poohed Thursday the notion that the AIDS epidemic - which has killed more than 22 million people over the past 20 years - has been virtually contained in high-income industrial countries.

"The view that the epidemic is a thing of the past is wrong", said a new 44-page study released by UNAIDS, the joint UN agency leading the global fight against the deadly disease.

Of the 36 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide, only about 1.5 million are from industrial nations. "But many of them live productively, thanks to pervasive anti-retroviral therapy", the study added.

"However, that achievement is shadowed by the fact that prevention efforts are stalling in most industrialised countries."

The study, released in advance of a UN special session on AIDS Jun 25-27, points out that in some industrial countries, a new pattern is emerging.

The AIDS epidemic is now shifting towards poorer people - especially ethnic minorities - who face disproportionate risks of infection and are more likely to be missed by prevention campaigns and deprived of access to treatment, according to the study.

HIV prevalence rates among injecting drug users has given cause for alarm: 18 percent in the US city of Chicago and as high as 30 percent in parts of New York.

By contrast, needle and syringe exchange schemes in Australia have kept prevalence rates low among injecting drug users.

In the United States, such exchange programmes are illegal under federal law but are permitted in a limited number of cities under municipal regulations. And, as safe sex messages fade and complacency sets in, infection rates in some North American cities are again rising among homosexuals.

There have also been sharp increases in sexually transmitted diseases among homosexuals in the city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands - "an indication that unsafe sex threatens to become the norm again," the report stated.

According to the study, there are also signs that unsafe sex between men might be a growing factor in the Eastern European epidemic.

Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, told reporters that the world's fastest growing AIDS epidemic is in Eastern Europe.

New epidemics have emerged in Estonia and Uzbekistan, while in Ukraine, more that 240,000 people are living with HIV/AIDS. In 1996, only a few cities in the Russian Federation reported HIV cases. Today, 82 of its 89 regions have registered cases.

Piot said the upcoming special session was an indication of the new political will among the UN's 189 member states to join the battle against AIDS.

"Twenty years have passed since the world first became aware of AIDS. Over those 20 years, the epidemic has spread further and its impact has been more severe than anyone could have imagined," he said.

Piot said an effective response to AIDS requires new ways of working together to harness the leadership of governments and community organisations.

He called for new and better ways to bring public and private interests together, on everything from access to life-saving drugs to protecting and supporting the workforce from the impact of the epidemic.

A major development in the fight against AIDS, he said, was the involvement of people living with HIV. According to the study, the HIV/AIDS epidemic flourishes amid stigma, fear and denial - deep- seated attitudes not easily dislodged.

People living with HIV/AIDS have invariably provided the best response to the stigma and denial. "They bring faces and voices to the realities many would prefer to keep abstract and distant," he added.

Next week's special session is expected to produce a draft declaration spelling out a global strategy against the disease. But discussions during preparatory meetings have been bogged down on sensitive issues relating to gender, homosexuality and sexual promiscuity.

Kenneth Roth of the non-governmental Human Rights Watch said that if government censors get their way next week, the denial and discrimination that have helped spread the disease will continue unabated.

He said that several delegations, including the United States, Egypt, Libya and the Vatican, are trying to delete from the proposed draft declaration any mention of homosexuality, sex workers, injecting drug users and their sex partners.

"At a conference devoted to fighting AIDS, governments must not replicate the silence and denial that have driven the spread of the disease," Roth declared. The United States has already rejected a proposal by the European Union and Latin American nations for a "rights-based approach" to combating AIDS.

"But the independent voices most likely to highlight the role of human rights abuses in the spread of HIV/AIDS have been excluded from these deliberations," Roth added.

"Sadly, governments seem determined to shut out uncomfortable messages, even at the risk of a less effective strategy for fighting this deadly disease." (END/IPS/WD/HE/HD/td/aa/01)