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World AIDS Day marked amid signs of progress

01 December, 2007

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PARIS (AFP) - Activists sought Saturday to keep the battle against HIV in the public eye on World AIDS Day in the face of growing complacency amid progress in treating and slowing the spread of the disease.

Even the Miss World beauty pageant on the Chinese holiday island of Sanya was being enlisted to get out the message that the disease still kills some 6,000 people each day.

The December 1 event is traditionally a time of grim stocktaking as AIDS campaigners sound the alarm over the disease's rampage through Africa, the threat it poses to Asia and former Soviet republics, and the risks to vulnerable communities such as sex workers, drug users and gay men.

But superficially, 2007 is a rare moment for celebration -- and this is what worries the experts.

Last month, the agency UNAIDS announced that the prevalence of HIV or AIDS -- the percentage of the world's population living with the HIV virus or the disease it causes -- peaked in the late 1990s.

UNAIDS also reduced its estimate of the number of people living with HIV or AIDS to 33 million from nearly 40 million after overhauling its methods for collecting data.

The tally of new infections has fallen, too, from 3.0 million in the late 1990s to an estimated 2.5 million in 2007.

Meanwhile, the agonising effort to bring antiretroviral drugs to Africa, where more than two-thirds of the people with HIV/AIDS live, is now bearing fruit.

At the end of 2006, more than two million people were getting the vital pills, a 54 percent increase over the previous year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria said Friday the number of people on antiretroviral (ARV) drugs it is funding has doubled in the past year to 1.4 million.

These figures may give the impression that a once-irrevocable death sentence is now a manageable chronic disease.

But experts and advocacy groups say this is a dangerous mirage.

"Despite substantial progress against AIDS worldwide, we are still losing ground," says James Shelton of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in a commentary appearing on Saturday in The Lancet, a London medical journal.

Despite progress in the drug rollout, treatment is still only available to about 10 percent of those in need, notes Shelton.

In developing countries, "the number of new infections continues to dwarf the numbers who start antiretroviral therapy in developing countries," he says.

Indonesia -- which the UN said last month has the fastest growing HIV epidemic in Asia -- marked the day with the launch of its first national campaign to promote the use of condoms, which currently account for less than one percent of contraception use.

The campaign in the world's most populous Muslim nation -- which will involve condom distribution, education on the benefits of condom use and safe sex practices, as well as a speech next week by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono -- aims to remove the stigma of condom use.

Stigma is also a concern for campaigners in South Korea, where the number of HIV/AIDS cases stood at 5,155 as of the end of September, the Korea Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The rate of new infections has been falling from 14.2 percent in 2004 to 11.5 percent in 2005 and 10.4 percent in 2006.

But experts cautioned the real number of HIV/AIDS infections would be much higher as South Korea has a strong social prejudice against the disease.

A recent survey showed that out of 10 South Koreans believe that carriers of the virus must be kept separate from the rest of the society.

"Fixing the social prejudice is almost as urgent as fighting the disease itself," said Professor O Myung-Don of the Seoul National University Hospital.

One of the biggest areas of concern in the worldwide fight is funding.

The war against AIDS "continues to be undermined by a global resource gap," says Alvaro Bermejo, executive director of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance.

According to the UN, there is currently an eight-billion-dollar shortfall in resources to fight AIDS, including for basic prevention, treatment and care for orphaned children.

To meet the Group of Eight (G8) goal of providing universal access to ARVs by 2010, 42 billion dollars will be needed. So far, only 15.4 billion is in the kitty.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, speaking in New York Friday, called on governments to accelerate effort towards that goal.

"I call for leadership among all governments in fully understanding the epidemic -- so that resources go where they are most needed," he said in a speech. And I call for leadership at all levels to scale up towards universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010," he said.

US President George W. Bush also marked the day by repeating his call on US lawmakers to double support for anti-AIDS programmes to 30 billion dollars over five years.

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