Economic slump stalls efforts to fight HIV as AIDS summit begins
The fight against HIV and AIDS is under threat from stalled economies that have caused governments around the world to cut back on funding to fight the disease, activists said, as the 18th global conference on AIDS began in Vienna on Sunday.
AFP - A world conference on AIDS got under way in the Austrian capital Sunday amid resurgent fears that advances in the 29-year war against the disease were threatened by a slump in funding.
The six-day International AIDS Conference is expected to offer further news about the drugs that with dazzling success have turned HIV from a death sentence to a chronic -- but manageable -- disease.
Other big news is awaited on the quest for a vaginal gel to thwart HIV and on promoting circumcision to help protect men against the microbe.
Both are keys to tackling HIV infections in Africa, home to two-thirds of the world's 33.4 million people living with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.
But optimism that AIDS is being braked, or even rolled back, was soured by a revival of concern about money.
Dwindling donations from rich countries imperils the 2006 UN and G8 goal of providing universal access to HIV drugs by 2010, AIDS campaigners warned.
Five million poor, badly infected people now get antiretroviral drugs, but 10 million still need to grasp the lifeline. The drugs have to be taken daily, and for life, which means the bill rises inexorably the more lives that are saved.
"Reductions in investment on AIDS programmes are hurting the AIDS response," warned Michel Sidibe, head of the UN agency UNAIDS.
"At a time when we are seeing results in HIV prevention and treatment, we must scale up, not scale down."
Michel Kazatchkine, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, told reporters he was "hugely afraid, very concerned."
The Fund, seeking 17 billion dollars in pledges from 2011 to 2013, is to hold a meeting of donors in New York in September.
Attaining the sum "should be possible, given that the world mobilised billions of dollars to save the banks," Kazatchkine told AFP. "But I cannot make any prediction about the outcome."
Funding by rich economies for poor countries fighting HIV/AIDS fell back slightly last year, to 7.6 billion dollars after 7.7 billion dollars in 2008, as a result of the economic recession, according to an analysis issued in Vienna by the Kaiser Family Foundation and UNAIDS.
The decline brought to a close six successive years of double digit increases. In 2002, funding for anti-HIV drugs and other initiatives was a mere 1.2 billion.
The report said that for poorer countries -- "low- and middle-income" economies -- 23.6 billion dollars was needed from all sources for 2009. The gap in funding last year was 7.7 billion dollars.
For 2010, 25 billion dollars has to be mustered for fighting AIDS in poorer countries, according to a previous UNAIDS estimate. So far, there is a funding shortfall of 11.3 billion, according to an analysis published this month in the US journal Science.
"This is a very serious deficit both at the moral level because of the failure to deliver on a longstanding pledge, but also at the humanitarian level," said Julio Montaner, president of the International AIDS Society (IAS), which organises the AIDS conference.
Kevin Frost, chief executive of a major US anti-AIDS organisation, amfAR, said increasing costs, coupled with the need in many countries to tighten belts, were stirring a sense "just short of panic" among some donors.
"I get the sense that they're saying, 'we didn't know what we were getting into'," he said.
Other major issues at the meeting include the situation in eastern and central Europe where the pandemic is accelerating, especially among intravenous drug users, and the theme of human rights.
VIPs include former US president Bill Clinton and Microsoft philanthropist Bill Gates, both rostered to speak on Monday, as well as rock star Annie Lennox, who will stage a concert on Tuesday.
Several dozen activists, demanding funding for AIDS, staged a rowdy demonstration outside the conference centre shortly before the forum's official launch.
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) has claimed more than 25 million lives since the disease first came to light in 1981, a toll that outstrips the fatalities of World War I. New cases of HIV are rising by around 2.7 million a year, according to UN figures for 2008.