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World: AIDS Day Hopes To Draw Attention To Escalating Crisis

Today marks World AIDS Day. Anti-AIDS activists around the globe are holding marches and vigils to draw attention to AIDS -- a disease that killed an estimated three million people this year and continues to spread. The World Health Organization and UNAIDS have announced a major new program to allow poor countries access to treatments that can slow the development of full-blown AIDS in individuals with the HIV virus that causes AIDS. On 29 November, some of the world's biggest names in the fight against AIDS -- including former South African President Nelson Mandela -- joined for a special concert to draw awareness to the disease.

Prague, 1 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Surviving members of the British rock band Queen and singer Anastacia perform the Queen anthem "We Will Rock You" at a benefit 29 November in Cape Town to raise awareness of AIDS and the HIV virus that causes AIDS.

The concert, attended by around 40,000 people and seen by millions more on the Internet, was timed to coincide with today's 1 December marking of World AIDS Day.

Marches, candlelight vigils, and exhibitions are expected around the world to highlight the growing epidemic of HIV/AIDS. UNAIDS says some 40 million people are now infected with the HIV virus. This past year alone some 3 million people died from the disease, and the number of new infections is rising.

The Cape Town concert brought together new names in music and old favorites. Beyonce Knowles, Peter Gabriel, Bono, Youssou N'Dour, and the Eurythmics were among those taking part. Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, appeared on stage for the first time in almost three decades to sing "Wild World."

The concert was called "46664" -- a reference to former South African President Nelson Mandela's number while he was in prison in South Africa as an anti-apartheid activist.

Mandela told the crowd that AIDS kills more people than wars, famines, and floods combined.

"46664 is a vital campaign to help fight a threat of unprecedented proportions that is claiming more lives than the sum total of all wars, famines and floods," Mandela said. "AIDS is no longer just a disease, it is a human rights issue!"

The South African venue was seen as crucial in the fight against AIDS. Sub-Saharan Africa has the world's highest rate of HIV/AIDS infections.

Gabriel talks of how serious the problem is for Africa, "In Africa there are millions of kids now whose parents have been destroyed by AIDS. In Africa, more people have AIDS than were lost in the two World Wars put together."

The World Health Organization and UNAIDS today were to announce a major campaign to simplify the distribution of special anti-retroviral therapies that can delay the onset of full-blown AIDS in individuals with the HIV virus. The plan is to provide some 3 million HIV-infected people with the latest drugs by the end of 2005.

The UN agencies will also encourage financial aid to poor countries and provide global leadership in fighting the spread of HIV.

There is no cure for AIDS and no effective vaccine. AIDS is spread through close physical contact -- such as unprotected sexual intercourse or by intravenous drug users sharing needles.

Access to such antiretroviral drugs and other combination therapies around the world is minimal because of the cost of the treatments.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has now made fighting the disease a cornerstone of his leadership. He said in interviews this week that he is, "not winning the war against AIDS because he doesn't think the leaders of the world are engaged enough." He said he feels, "angry, distressed, and helpless to live in a world where we have the be able to help all these patients, what is lacking is the political will."

In other events today, U.S. Secretary of Health Tommy Thompson is to lead U.S. business executives on a tour of AIDS projects in Zambia. Also on the trip is Randall Tobias, who was recently appointed to oversee the some $15 billion in funding over five years proposed by U.S. President George W. Bush for assistance against HIV/AIDS.

The UN says the epidemic is by no means limited to Africa. It says AIDS is spreading in India, China, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, Russia, Ukraine, Estonia, and Latvia, among other countries.
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.