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Bangkok Post
It's crunch time in the Aids war

July 8, 2002
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 syndrome.

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 terrible threat.