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AIDS conference delegates make call to protect funding - and sufferers

At the world’s largest meeting of AIDS experts and activists in Vienna, there were many achievements to be positive about. However, there are fears that success in fighting the spread of HIV could lead to complacency.

An AIDS ribbon with euro notes in the background

With times tough economically, AIDS funding is suffering

Some 20,000 clinicians, policymakers and grassroots workers attended the international AIDS 2010 conference in Vienna, as well as the occasional celebrity.

Among the major conference themes were the need for more money to fight the spread of HIV and AIDS and to protect the rights of AIDS sufferers.

Conference-goers heard about scientific advances that were being made to stop the spread of the virus, including a vaginal gel that could prevent women from contracting it.

In addition, therapies using cocktails of drugs that prevent HIV from replicating inside the body were declared safer and more effective than ever by the UN's World Health Organization.

Call for vigilance

Among those taking part in an accompanying street demonstration was Scottish singer and social activist Annie Lennox. She sees progress in the fight against AIDS also bearing the danger of complacency.

Singer Annie Lennox

Singer Annie Lennox is concerned that complacency is growing stronger

"Fortunately all of the work that people have done in trying to make some sort of U-turn is succeeding," said Lennox.

"The worry is that we back away from it now because we say we've made some progress. That is a huge concern because then again we will see the mortality rates coming up and all the good work that's been done will be undone."

Among the themes was the need for richer countries to do more by giving more money to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS. Figures issued at the six-day forum showed western donors in 2009 contributed less than in 2008 - the first annual reduction in funding for six years.

Host country Austria came in for special criticism with many delegates pointing out that it had given only 1.1 million dollars (774,200 euros) to the fund since it was established in 2002. There were also calls for the US to increase its spending.

Maintaining funding at its current levels was not good enough, said Chris Collins from the Foundation for AIDS Research.

"HIV/AIDS is the biggest killer of women of child-bearing age in the world," said Collins.

HIV infected human T-cells,

More than 33 million people are infected with HIV

"It's not clear to me how we can flatline the response to global AIDS when so many people are in need of treatment and hope to do better on maternal health."

Science offers some hope

Emphasizing the point that funding can bring results in preventing AIDS, scientists presented a new vaginal gel which they said could cut the risk of HIV infection in women by 50 percent.

The gel was developed and tested in South Africa, where infection rates among young women are one in two at the age of 24.

While the topic of funding dominated much of the summit, the real aim was to get human rights for HIV and AIDS sufferers back on the agenda. A clear message was that criminalization of drug users and marginalization of those with AIDS hindered the fight against new infections.

"Every form of criminalization of sex and drugs, compulsory testing, etcetera, has proved to be counter-productive," UN special rapporteur Manfred Nowak told the conference.

Breeding grounds for virus

Nowak warned that overcrowded prisons are a breeding ground for AIDS. He said in many countries inmates spread the HIV virus through non-sterile drug equipment and sexual contact.

A participant passes a poster displayin vienna

Moving on: the next conference will be held in Washington in 2012

In a final declaration the International AIDS Conference said that the criminalization of illicit drug users is fuelling the spread of HIV and leading to overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences. It called for a complete rethink of policies.

The conference closed with messages of support from South Africa's Nobel-winning anti-apartheid campaigner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and US President Barack Obama.

The world forum is held every two years, with the next to be held in Washington. At least 25 million people have died as a result of AIDS since 1981 and more than 33 million people are living with the HIV virus.

Author: Kerry Skyring (rc)

Editor: Susan Houlton

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