HIV drugs reaching more people as Aids Day marked

About 1,2-million people in countries hard hit by HIV/Aids are receiving life-extending drugs thanks to two major United States and international funds, double from a year ago, but many millions more need help, the funds said on Friday.

The figures were announced on World Aids Day as activists around the world turned a spotlight on the scourge of Aids and pleaded for more action.

South Africa unveiled a draft five-year plan to combat HIV/Aids, the World Health Organisation said prevention and treatment programmes often do not reach those at highest risk, and hundreds of HIV-infected protesters gathered in New Delhi.

More than 25-million people have died of Aids since the incurable disease, which ravages the body’s immune system, was first recognised in 1981. Almost 40-million people now live with the HIV virus that causes Aids, with sub-Saharan Africa the hardest hit region.

The US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, known as Pepfar, and the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria said together they are bringing HIV drugs to 1,2 million people living with HIV in low- and middle-income countries.

This represents a three-fold increase since December 2003 and a doubling in the past year, the funds said. The two funds devote much of their effort in Africa.

“The pandemic of HIV/Aids can be defeated,” US President George Bush told reporters at the White House.
“And the United States is willing to take the lead in that fight. But we can’t do it alone. And so for our international partners, we appreciate what you do.”

Bush said the United States is spending $15-billion over five years on HIV/Aids efforts. In addition to Pepfar, the United States is the largest contributor to the Global Fund, an international public-private partnership.

‘Long way to go’

“A very rough estimate might suggest that today across the developing world two million people are receiving treatment while seven million people require treatment,” Richard Feachem, executive director of the Global Fund, told reporters.

“So we’ve gotten to something like 30% of the treatment addressed. And that’s still a big gap and there’s a long way to go,” Feachem said.

Of the 2,9-million deaths from Aids worldwide last year, 2,1-million occurred in Africa.

South Africa is one of the worst-hit countries. Its new plan, to be finalised by March, calls for South Africa to cut in half by 2011 the annual number of new HIV infections and deliver treatment and support to 80% of HIV-positive children, adults and their families.

South African government officials joined community leaders and activists to unveil the plan to curb an epidemic that kills almost 1 000 South Africans a day. The plan, lacking much detail, was recognised as an important step in a country where President Thabo Mbeki’s government has been criticised by Aids activists for questioning basic tenets of Aids science.

In Geneva, the WHO said surveillance for the HI virus is weak in most of the world and prevention and treatment programs often fail to reach people at high risk for Aids—drug users, homosexuals and sex workers.

Anders Nordstrom, the agency’s acting director-general, said tackling the Aids epidemic remains one of the world’s most pressing public health challenges. Only 1,6-million people, or 24% of the 6,8-million people worldwide who need the life-extending therapy, receive it, according to the latest joint report of UNAids and the WHO.

In India, which has 5,7-million infected people, hundreds of HIV-positive protesters gathered in New Delhi demanding the government provide second-line Aids drugs free to those who have developed resistance to first-line HIV medication.

“I know I’m dying, but if I get the drug I can live,” said Umashanker Pandey (38) an emaciated HIV-positive man from the western state of Gujarat.

In Indonesia, health and education workers planned to start handing out condoms, targeting prostitutes and customers in the capital, Jakarta.

In China, the United Nations called for overcoming stigma and discrimination in the country’s vast interior.

HIV infection is rising in every region of the world, especially in east Asia and in eastern Europe/central Asia, according to the latest UNAids/WHO report.

“Accountability—the theme of this World Aids Day—requires every president and prime minister, every parliamentarian and politician, to decide and declare that ‘Aids stops with me,’” United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said. - Reuters

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