The world's biggest conference on Aids and HIV opened yesterday
morning in Barcelona. There are decidedly mixed reviews due at
the meeting, which marks 21 years since the discovery and battle
began against the world's most terrible epidemic. The news from
Thailand is decidedly positive. But it would be a serious error
for Thais to bask too long in the warmth of praise. We need to
take a bow, but beating back Aids requires that the whole world
get behind the effort.
First, the good news. The number of new HIV infections in
Thailand fell from 143,000 in 1991 to 29,000 last year. This
remarkable, 10-year achievement is probably even better than the
statistics indicate. In 10 years, reporting has vastly improved.
Thai science has approached the HIV/Aids problem with remarkable
logic and tenacity. The country will embark today on the biggest
test of a vaccine ever attempted. Some 16,000 volunteers, from
all walks of life, will participate. And Thai scientists have
researched and announced yet another breakthrough in cutting the
transmission rates of HIV/Aids from mother to baby.
Take a bow, most Thai citizens, for quickly shedding the initial
denial and disbelief, and by coming to grips with the medical,
social and education needed to combat this deadly menace.
Religious and community leaders have proved their worth across
the country by erecting hospices, caring for Aids victims,
bringing down the horrendous cost of treatment and making safe
sex a national byword.
This is where the bad news begins. A small minority of
disbelieving, spiteful or stubborn citizens continue to
discriminate against HIV/Aids victims. In most cases, these
people have been properly pushed aside. But horror stories
continue of children denied places in school, families being
exiled from their villages. Thankfully, there are fewer cases of
discrimination at hospitals, clinics and temples. But even a
cursory examination of the country makes it clear that education
gets only a grade of C. Too many citizens still do not understand
HIV or Aids. The epidemic thrives on ignorance.
It thrives especially in countries where denial is obvious.
Burmese leaders probably believe that Aids is no threat because
no Burmese is promiscuous. Certainly, the personal beliefs of
South African President Thabo Mbeki have resulted in the
infection of tens of thousands of his citizens. Mr Mbeki, who
clings to outdated scepticism over links between HIV and Aids,
has refused an offer by Thailand to supply generic drugs to HIV
victims. Indeed, he has forbidden state hospitals from using such
drugs to prevent mother-to-child infection, even stubbornly
maintaining that rape victims cannot get Aids.
The United Nations, citing the dreadful statistics of many
African nations _ 4.5% of all citizens infected in some countries
_ notes it could get much worse. Asia is the centre of Aids
efforts for several reasons. The biggest is that poor countries
like India, China and Indonesia are so vulnerable to the deadly
Aids is partly contained. The coming battle to push back the
disease is crucial, in order to reduce the threat from this
epidemic. That will take money. Participants at the Barcelona
conference have the means to turn the tide. It will take massive
education. It will require pushing aside the brutally
closed-minded rulers in places like Burma and South Africa. And
it will take money.
Thailand needs more funds, but Barcelona delegates must also
consider Cambodia. That country has fought Aids intelligently and
relentlessly, to the limits of its ability. From here on,
defeating the menace in Cambodia will require money _ for drugs,
research, Aids education. At 21, the Aids effort has to act
responsibly and allocate all money needed to overcome this