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World: AIDS Conference Wrestles With Funding Issues

  • Don Hill

The parade of grim statistics continued yesterday at the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain. The staggering numbers included the millions of AIDS orphans and the rising millions of victims of the disease itself, as well as the billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance needed. The five-day conference ends tomorrow.

Prague, 11 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The 14th International AIDS Conference convened this week in Barcelona has been contentious, with participants arguing over which countries and agencies are doing their fair share to fight the disease.

When U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson stepped forward to speak on 9 July, protesters drowned him out with calls of "Shame! Shame!" They charge that the United States has been among the stingiest contributors to AIDS relief.

One number that nobody seems to challenge, however, is the estimate that at least $10 billion a year is needed to control the disease. African countries are particularly hard hit, with more than 30 million people infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS. Projections say the next AIDS explosion will occur in Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern and Central Europe.

Activists at the conference demanded that African countries be excused from debt payments on past international loans; that the United States contribute more generously to AIDS relief funding; and that pharmaceutical companies -- mostly in the U.S. -- surrender their patent rights for AIDS drugs to facilitate cheaper distribution in Third World countries.

There are currently several worldwide initiatives for debt relief to hard-hit countries. The United States, for its part, has pledged more than $500 million for AIDS relief. Even so, U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs -- speaking at the conference -- said he believes the United States is not contributing its fair share. Sachs said U.S. agencies should be contributing $2.5 billion a year.

Pharmaceutical companies raised much of the hundreds of millions of dollars they have poured into AIDS research in the last 20 years by selling the drugs that resulted from such research.

Robert Gallo, the U.S. scientist who co-discovered HIV/AIDS, told the conference that scientists are on the verge of developing an anti-AIDS preventive inoculation.

"I think there is a good reason to be more optimistic about the vaccine now than there was [a few years ago]. The reasons are many. First of all, there is more money, there is more organizational concern about the vaccine."

Much of the information disseminated at the conference stressed emotion-arousing facts and numbers. A report published yesterday by UNICEF, the UN children's fund; the U.S. international aid agency (USAID); and the UNAIDS agency projected that 42 million children -- 20 million of them in Africa alone -- will have been orphaned by AIDS by 2010.

UN epidemiologist Peter Ghys told RFE/RL in a telephone interview that AIDS will leave three out of every 50 children in Africa orphaned in the next decade. He said the AIDS orphans report was intended to elicit action to improve the situation.

"We very much hope that we can mobilize those actors that need to act on this information. And that includes governments of countries that are affected. It includes donor agencies that need to help finance the programs that are needed to deal with this crisis. It includes those grass-roots and community-based organizations that can help within their communities deal with this problem."

Ghys said the AIDS agencies hope to capitalize on the African tradition of extended families to support the growing population of orphans, rather than merely building a network of homes for them.

"Since the crisis is so huge, it is not [evident] that, say, building orphanages would effectively deal with this crisis. We actually think that in most settings it is much more appropriate to provide support to communities and families so that they can deal with the increasing number of orphans."

The UN disease control expert said one disturbing aspect of the orphan issue is the tendency for such children to end their education. Often, he said, they are pressed into farm work or other labor to help support their extended families.

"Another thing that governments can very usefully do is to provide support so that children will continue to go to school."

UNAIDS issued a report warning against the widespread use of criminal sanctions against people who transmit the virus that causes AIDS. The agency said criminalizing people who spread AIDS can be counterproductive. It said criminal penalties contribute to the prejudice that people with AIDS are villains, not victims. The report says this may potentially inhibit people from coming forward to be tested for AIDS, thus undermining prevention and care efforts.