In the News

UN Launches AIDS Strategy for World’s Poor


NAIROBI – The United Nations unveiled plans today to rush life-saving anti-retroviral AIDS drugs to three million of the world’s poor in a $5.5-billion emergency strategy to fight a disease killing 8,000 a day.

“The lives of millions of people are at stake. This strategy demands massive and unconventional efforts to make sure they stay alive,” World Health Organisation director-general Lee Jong-wook said in a statement to mark World AIDS Day.

“Preventing and treating AIDS may be the toughest health assignment the world has faced, but it is also the most urgent.”

The WHO and UNAIDS said their program complemented initiatives by thousands of international foundations and non-governmental organizations, by pharmaceutical companies to lower the price of anti-retroviral drugs, and most importantly “the courageous contributions of nations increasing their people’s access to AIDS treatment.”

The UN announced last week 40 million people around the world are infected with HIV, and the global AIDS epidemic shows no signs of abating.

Five million people became infected with HIV worldwide this year alone.

Yesterday, in St. Peter’s Square, Pope John Paul II offered a special prayer for AIDS victims and their caregivers.

“While I pray for those who are hit by this scourge, I encourage those in the Church who carry out an invaluable service of acceptance, care and spiritual accompaniment to our brothers and sisters,” John Paul said.

The Pope’s comments, delivered in his traditional Sunday greeting, came amid renewed criticism of the Vatican’s opposition to the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The Vatican maintains that chastity is the best method of prevention.

Last month, the UN World Health Organization labelled as dangerous and “totally wrong” comments by a senior Vatican cardinal, Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, that condoms do not sufficiently protect against AIDS, saying the virus is small enough to pass through them.

Catholics for a Free Choice, a group that supports abortion rights, said it was launching an educational campaign today to correct the Vatican “misinformation” about the effectiveness of condoms.

The WHO estimates six million people in poor countries are in immediate need of the anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment that many rich world sufferers now take for granted, but less than 300,000 actually receive it.

The strategy requires getting ARV treatment to half of the six million by the end of 2005.

The WHO, whose recommendations guide policymakers around the world, is expected at the global launch of the strategy in Kenya to provide details of how to widen access to “combination therapy,” which improves the effectiveness of treatment.

“The aim is to ensure that all people living with AIDS, even in the poorest settings, have access to treatment through this simplified approach,” a WHO statement said.

UNAIDS, the UN agency that co-ordinates global efforts to fight the disease, said the epidemic was rampant in sub-Saharan Africa and that a new wave of the disease was threatening China, Indonesia and Russia because of transmissions through drug use and unsafe sex.

To try to raise awareness in Africa, an 80-member U.S. delegation headed by Tommy Thompson, the Health and Human Services Secretary, started a tour of sub-Saharan Africa yesterday to assess projects and determine what needs to be done to increase treatment and prevent the spread of the virus.

Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, thinks many political leaders still simply do not care enough to fight the disease, which has killed 28 million people since it was first reported among homosexual men in the United States in 1981.

Experts said a pillar of the plan to be launched today will be a vast increase in the manufacture and distribution of combination therapy ARVs under which sufferers need only take two pills a day.

It is a simpler treatment regime than standard rich world programs, which require eight or more pills a day, and means compliance by patients in poor countries should be good.

The distribution of combination therapy has implications for the pharmaceutical business: multinational firms have often been prevented by patent restrictions from producing combination pills, a worry not shared by generic drugs manufacturers.

The WHO strategy focuses on five themes, assigning governments much of the work on the ground. These are: distributing simplified, standardized tools to deliver anti-retroviral therapy; a new service operated by WHO and UNAIDS to ensure an effective, reliable supply of medicines and diagnostics; rapid identification, dissemination and application of new knowledge and successful strategies; urgent, sustained support for affected countries; and global leadership, strong partnership and advocacy.

A key body will be a proposed global AIDS Medicines and Diagnostics Service to ensure poor countries have access to quality medicines and diagnostic tools at the best prices.

The WHO is calling for money from donor governments and funding agencies.

“We know what to do but what we urgently need now are the resources to do it,” the WHO’s Mr. Lee said. “We must waste no time.”

The WHO also wants to train more health workers because many of the worst-hit countries have very few trained health staff.

Candlelight vigils, concerts, seminars and parades were planned across the globe for today to increase awareness about AIDS, educate people about how to prevent its transmission, and express solidarity with those suffering from it.

In London, Crusaid, the British charity that cares for people with HIV/AIDS, is hosting a performance of a specially commissioned Requiem for World AIDS Day, composed by Rowland Lee and performed by the Fine Arts Sinfonia and Sarah Connolly, a principal at the English National Opera.

As part of World AIDS Day, candlelight vigils, educational seminars and torchlight parades were planned around the globe .

In Lisbon, activists will gather in the centre of the city wearing white masks, and celebrities will speak to the public about AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. In Turkey, several workshops and panels were planned for the week, along with concerts, a festival and parade.

This article first appeared in the 1 December 2003 edition of the National Post.

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