The semi-annual International AIDS conference has opened in Mexico, the first to take place in Latin America. More than 22,000 scientists, policymakers and field workers are attending.
A global conference on AIDS opened here Sunday with appeals for the world not to flag in fighting a disease that has claimed more than 25 million lives and placed 33 million others under its shadow.
"AIDS is the most complex, the most challenging and probably the most demanding infectious disease humanity has ever had to face," said Margaret Chan, director general of the UN's World Health Organisation (WHO).
"We dare not let down our guard. This is an unforgiving epidemic," she warned. "We are going to be in this for the long haul."
The six-day 17th International AIDS Conference is the first to take place in Latin America, a region with entrenched stigma against people with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
More than 22,000 scientists, policymakers and field workers are attending, making it the second largest conference in the 27-year history of the disease, and the largest in a developing country.
The biennial gathering coincides with a relative lull in the protracted fight against the disease, marked by successes in bringing long-awaited antiretroviral drugs to badly-hit poor nations.
Peter Piot, executive director of the UN agency UNAIDS, hailed this as "cause for great encouragement," but little more.
"It's certainly far too early for declaring victory, because the end of AIDS is nowhere in sight," Piot said soberly. "Every day, almost three times as many people become newly infected with HIV as those who start taking antiretroviral therapy."
VIPs attending the confrence include UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Scottish rock singer Annie Lennox and former US president Bill Clinton.
Clinton is a key figure in the campaign to slash the price of anti-HIV drugs to developing countries which are home to 90 percent of the 33 million people with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Insiders said they did not expect any breakthrough announcement in the arena of drugs, and braced for confirmation that the quest for a vaccine and an HIV-thwarting vaginal gel was mired in setbacks.
More positively, though, evidence has emerged that male circumcision can help prevent HIV infection among men -- a finding of great significance in southern Africa, the epicentre of the pandemic.
Thanks to a major increase in funding and cuts in the price of first-generation antiretrovirals, three million people in developing countries now have access to lifeline drugs that suppress HIV, but do not eradicate it from the body.
But this is still less than a third of the way to the goal of universal access by 2010, enshrined by the UN General Assembly.
According to UN agency UNAIDS, around 10 billion dollars was spent last year fighting AIDS in poor countries, more than eight billion dollars short of what was needed.
The conference theme, "Universal Action NOW," reflects an appeal to political leaders to maintain their effort, amid worries about a looming money crunch as the cost of treatment spirals as more people go on drugs.
Questions have been raised in books and medical journals as to whether AIDS should still be considered exceptional if antiretrovirals have turned HIV from a death sentence to a manageable disease.
Some have even suggested the funds spent on this disease might better allocated to combatting malaria and other, less-visible killers.
Piot, who steps down as UNAIDS chief at year's end, argued forcefully against this.
"We must categorically reject any attempt to so-called 'normalise' AIDS, or treat this epidemic as just one of many medical problems," he said. "Now, more than ever, do we need an exceptional response... there's not 'too much money going to AIDS' but too little.'"
Date created : 2008-08-04