Monday, August 14, 2006

World AIDS Conference Gets Under Way

by The Canadian Press

(Toronto, Ontario) All the money in the world will not be able to defeat HIV/AIDS unless great strides are made in preventing new infections - and that can only be achieved by giving women and other high-risk groups the ability to protect themselves, Bill and Melinda Gates said on the opening day of the International AIDS Conference.

At a news conference Sunday prior to the opening ceremonies, Bill Gates said that despite growing access to antiretroviral drugs in countries hard-hit by HIV/AIDS, between four and five million people worldwide will become infected in the next year.

``I want to emphasize we're going to have to do a much better job of prevention to stop the spread of HIV,'' said Gates, whose foundation just donated $500 million US to the Global Fund on AIDS. ``We'll never be able to deal with the numbers of people that would have to go on treatment if we don't make a dramatic breakthrough in prevention.''

The Microsoft founder said he would call on the world to accelerate research into microbicides and oral drugs that would prevent acquisition of HIV. ``We hope and expect that this could be the next breakthrough.''

Such measures are particularly important because they would benefit women who now have to rely on men to agree to abstinence or condom use.

``And that simply isn't getting the job done,'' Gates said. ``A woman should never need her partner's permission to save her own life.

``So there's progress on these but the pace has been too slow.''

His wife, Melinda, stressed the need to use and make more widely available the tools known to stop the spread of the virus.

``Today fewer than one in five people who are at high risk for HIV have access to things like condoms, clean needles, education and testing,'' she said. ``That's something that simply needs to change.

``One of the things that we fundamentally believe about HIV the more that we've been involved in this is you have to put the power in the hands of women. That is going to be the way to change this epidemic.''

Bill Gates and others called on all governments to join the battle against HIV/AIDS around the world.

``Obviously the AIDS epidemic is going to require all actors, particularly governments, to dig deep and make this a high budgetary priority,'' he said.

``The amount of money that's required for universal treatment or the things around prevention far exceed the amount that any individual government, certainly any foundation, can possibly provide.''

Health Minister Tony Clement agreed that it will take the collective efforts of people like the Gateses, international advocacy organizations and governments to wrestle the pandemic to the ground and the AIDS conference offers a fresh starting point for that endeavour.

``I can't imagine another venue, another event around the world that brings together a more dynamic, a more diverse, a more committed group of people,'' Clement said. ``We need all of these people all of their energy, all of their collective wisdom and all of their passion perhaps most of all.

``I know that I'll never be able to fully comprehend the absolute devastation that flows from the human loss associated with this pandemic. But I want you to know how committed I am and how the government of Canada is committed to continuing this fight until it is won.''

Conference co-chair Dr. Mark Wainberg, a leading AIDS researcher at McGill University in Montreal, said ``there is no doubt in any of our minds that HIV is the planet's public enemy number 1. This conference plays such a vital role in combatting the spread of HIV.''

( I know Dr. Wainberg here in Montreal)

One goal of the conference is to make sure drugs are available to those who need them around the world, regardless of ability to pay, he said.

``We all agree. Access to HIV drugs is a right and not a privilege.''

But Frika Chia Iskandar, an HIV-positive woman from Jakarta, told the news conference that access to treatment is not just about pills - if people don't live close to medical care, access to treatment also means being able to afford to get to where the drugs are being dispensed.

As well, ``stigma and discrimination are still happening,'' she said, noting that a dentist refused to treat her last year. ``It's still there. Nothing much has changed.''

The conference has brought an estimated 24,000 delegates and 3,000 journalists from around the world to Toronto for the biggest gathering in the now-biennial meeting's 21-year history.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he will not attend the six-day conference because of other commitments, a decision that has rankled and baffled organizers, researchers and AIDS activists - not just in Canada but elsewhere in the world. Instead, Canada is represented by Clement and Minister of International Co-operation Josee Verner.

(Stephen Harper is a fool - and an Idiot for not attending) That's 2 strikes Mr. Harper, You have turned a blind eye to TWO - count them - TWO Important events in Canada. This AIDS conference is much higher on the importance meter. You should be ashamed of yourself. You give Canada a poor grade as a HOST!

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton, the crown prince and princess of Norway, UN AIDS for Africa envoy Stephen Lewis, and actors Sandra Oh and Olympia Dukakis are scheduled to attend.

Conference workshops and plenary sessions officially begin Monday, and will deal with a wide range of issues - from scientific research to caring for those with HIV/AIDS to preventing the spread of the virus, which has killed 25 million people in the last 25 years and infected about 40 million worldwide.

© 2006


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