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Chilling Facts Turn the Heat on AIDS Conference

The 14th International AIDS Conference, which starts on Sunday, will see 15,000 delegates searching for answers. In Germany, meanwhile, public awareness is growing but many young people remain uninformed about risks.

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The AIDS Red Ribbon - a symbol of tolerance and solidarity towards the millions of HIV-infected

When five homosexual men were first detected as having AIDS in San Francisco in 1981, most put it down to an infection afflicting homosexuals and drug-addicts.

20 years later, hardly anyone would dream of suggesting that.

Rapid rise of a killer disease

AIDS has killed more than 20 million since its discovery in 1981 and created 14 million orphans according to the UNAIDS, the agency that co-ordinates the United Nations' AIDS programs.

Today, 40 million people world-wide are infected by the HIV virus; an estimated 68 million people will die from AIDS in the developing world over the next 18 years. Questions, problems – where are the answers?

The 14th International AIDS Conference that kicks off in Barcelona on Sunday will see 15,000 delegates from all walks of life – scientists, politicians, community workers, AIDS activists, doctors, donors and counsellors participating in the week-long brainstorming session.

As public awareness of the AIDS crisis increases and the political momentum to tackle AIDS grows, delegates will be under pressure to provide answers to what is increasingly being perceived as a global threat.

What can stop the virus? What can help people, who are infected with the HIV virus? How can the vicious cycle of unsafe sex, poverty, ignorance and lack of political will be broken? How can anti-retroviral drugs be made more easily available and affordable for the HIV-infected in developing countries?

Grim reading

The latest UNAIDS report published just a week before the conference in Spain takes off, underscores the urgency in coming up with a cohesive global action plan. The report warns that the AIDS epidemic is still in its early stages and is spreading rapidly throughout Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe.

It especially threatens to wipe out a generation in Africa and destabilise the whole continent. Of a record 3 million people killed by AIDS last year, 2.2 million alone were from Africa.

Dr. Peter Piot, UNAIDS' executive director, told Reuters the disease was eating away Africa’s work force, inhibiting economic development and aggravating famines.

AIDS killer in Africa, Russia and Eastern Europe

It UNAIDS report reveals that Botswana has the highest HIV infection rates in the world, with 39 percent of the adult population now affected. The epidemic is chiefly spread through heterosexual sex without condoms, life expectancy in Botswana has dropped below 40 for the first time since 1950.

Away from Africa, the UNAIDS report also warns of epidemics in highly-populated countries like China, Indonesia and those in the former Soviet-Union.

The disease is spreading fastest in Russia and Eastern Europe and is moving from injecting drug users to the wider population.

Young people largely ignorant

Coinciding with the UNAIDS report, a landmark study compiled by the UNICEF, UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation which takes a comprehensive look at the behaviour and knowledge relating to HIV/AIDS of young people aged 15-24 years has thrown up an alarming find.

It says that over 50 percent of young people aged between 15-24 surveyed in 60 countries have no idea how HIV/AIDS is transmitted or how to protect themselves from the disease. At the same time the study shows that adolescence is the time when the majority of people become sexually active.

UN organisations are now calling for AIDS-related efforts to centre on working with young people to provide them with knowledge about HIV and how to avoid infection.

AIDS in Germany

In Germany, some 60,000 people have been infected with HIV since the mid-80s. The Berlin-based Robert Koch Institute reports that 19,000 people have died from AIDS in Germany.

While public concern about AIDS has been waning in recent years, the federal Center for Health Education said recently that this appears to be changing.

Since the early 1990s, the agency has backed a series of billboards under the headline "mach’s mit" or "do it with". The "with" referrring to condoms. The public is invited to send in suggestions for billboards, which always feature a colored condom as part of the design.

The latest campaign, aimed at reminding people to use condoms while on vacation, is a place-setting with fork, knife and condom-plate under the headline "Bed & Breakfast". The condom manufacturer Durex says that about 75 percent of young adults in Germany use a condom when having sex for the first time with a new partner.

Elisabeth Pott, director of the Center for Health Education, attributed increased awareness to this ad campaign.

Facts Remain Murky

However, while Germans are more aware about AIDS than in recent years, their knowledge about it remains murky. A recent survey of German youth showed that 25 percent did not know that an HIV infection is contagious before AIDS develops and 20 percent of young singles believe that HIV leaves physical marks that are visible on people who are infected.

Meanwhile, about 2,000 people are infected with HIV each year in Germany, about 1,500 of them men. In Germany, about 50 percent of all new infections come from homosexual contact between men; 21 percent from immigrants coming from countries with high infection rates; 18 percent from heterosexual sex; 10 percent from the use of contaminated needles during drug use and 1 percent from the transfer of the infection from mother to child during pregnancy.

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