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UN: New Report Shows Progress Fighting HIV/AIDS, But Member Nations Falling Short Of Goals

At a special session of the UN General Assembly yesterday, member states reaffirmed their pledges to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Heads of states and other top government officials discussed a report by Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the progress in the worldwide fight against HIV/AIDS and presented updates on the situations in their countries. The UN report specifically highlights Eastern Europe and Central Asia as regions of particular concern.

United Nations, 23 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- World leaders addressing a special United Nations General Assembly session yesterday expressed concern about what they called a dangerous drop in commitment by some governments to the fight against HIV/AIDS.

In opening yesterday's session, Assembly President Julian Robert Hunte of Saint Lucia referred to a new UN report that acknowledges signs of progress but cited a shortfall in funding for the UN's Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

Hunte stressed that HIV/AIDS is much more than a public health problem and impacts virtually every aspect of human endeavor. He also urged interventions that -- in his words -- "go hand-in-hand with policies that address poverty, socio-economic development, human welfare, and social cohesion."

"We must take steps to reduce the number of children born with HIV, the growing number of AIDS orphans, and the estimated 5 million worldwide HIV [cases] in just one year -- 2002. We must confront stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS and assure that prevention and awareness programs reach people at risk and improve access to affordable medicines. UNAIDS estimates that we are falling far short of the $10,500 million needed annually by 2005 to effectively fight the epidemic in low- and middle-income countries," Hunte said.

The United States has pledged $1.6 billion out of a total of $4.7 billion to the Global Fund to help contain the spread of HIV/AIDS. In his own address to the General Assembly, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke out against the ignorance and stigma still surrounding the disease.

"Like all great evils, AIDS feeds on ignorance and fear. When people lack knowledge of how infections can be prevented and when those infected are stigmatized and driven into the shadows, the virus thrives and hope withers. More and more public figures are speaking out, shattering the silence that kills. They are sending the message that people living with AIDS should not be treated with cruelty and discrimination but instead with dignity and compassion," Powell said.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in his own remarks before the Assembly, noted that one-third of all countries still have no policies to ensure that women have access to prevention and care, even though women now account for half of those infected with HIV/AIDS worldwide.

Annan also said more than one-third of heavily affected countries still have no strategies in place to care for the increasing number of AIDS orphans, and fully two-thirds of all countries fail to provide legal protection against discrimination for the groups most vulnerable to HIV.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma also addressed the special AIDS session. He reported that there are more than 57,000 people officially registered as being infected with HIV in Ukraine and that his government is taking action.

"Recently, the national program on HIV prevention has been implemented in Ukraine. Measures taken enable us to make substantial progress in combating the spread of the disease, particularly cases of the transfer of HIV infection from mother to child," Kuchma said.

Kuchma acknowledged, however, that the actual number of cases is perhaps several times higher. Ukraine is reported to be one of the most severely infected countries in Eastern Europe.

The UN report shows that in Eastern Europe and, in particular, in Central Asia, the fastest growth of new HIV cases is among intravenous drug abusers. Russia still has the largest number of cases, with the number of infected intravenous drug users reaching almost 60 percent in some areas.

In his presentation at the conference, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kassymzhomart Tokaev noted that substantial progress has been made in fighting the spread of the disease in his country. But he said that, as in previous years, the major obstacle for better results is a scarcity of funds to fight the disease.

"HIV/AIDS prevention measures have been integrated into a strategic plan of development in the Republic of Kazakhstan up to 2010. Key governmental agencies have developed detailed strategic programs focusing on appropriate allocations of available financial resources. Strong partnership of the government with the nongovernmental sector and international organizations, coupled with the appropriate commitments by the government, ensure the success in overcoming the problem of the spread of this epidemic in my country," Tokaev said.

Although the UN report highlights the lack of response in many key areas, it does point to progress on some fronts. Of the more than 100 countries surveyed, 93 percent have set up comprehensive nationwide HIV/AIDS strategies and national bodies to coordinate responses, and 88 percent have increased public awareness through media campaigns, school-based AIDS education and peer education programs.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said the spread of HIV/AIDS in his country has been effectively contained: "In the Islamic Republic of Iran, social traditions and religious beliefs have prevented HIV/AIDS from growing in a widespread manner. Care and support services to the infected persons -- including medical outpatient treatment and in clinics and in-patient counseling -- are provided free of charge and mostly through government support and subsidies. Furthermore, visiting facilities are established in our 20 provinces and in 21 prisons with a high prevalence [of HIV/AIDS]. Despite all of these efforts, care and treatment to all persons in need require more financial and technical assistance."

Carol Bellamy, the executive director of the UN Children's Fund, or UNICEF, urged the General Assembly to focus the HIV/AIDS fight on children and young people. She said 6,000 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 become HIV positive every day.

So far, Bellamy said, AIDS has killed 28 million people, and an estimated 42 million are living with the disease. And she said many children and young people are now watching their most critical adult caregivers succumb to the same disease they are trying to treat.