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AIDS epidemic in Eastern Europe/Central Asia

Eastern Europe/Central Asia face world’s most rapidly expanding AIDS epidemic – UN

With 270,000 people newly infected with HIV in 2005 alone, the Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) region faces the world’s most rapidly expanding AIDS epidemic, and treatment and preventive measures must be urgently boosted, United Nations officials said today.

“AIDS is one of the greatest challenges facing Eastern Europe and Central Asia today,” the Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Peter Piot told the first regional AIDS conference in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which opened today in Moscow.

“Fear and stigma are truly the best friends of HIV. To get ahead of the epidemic, stigma and discrimination must be tackled head-on, and HIV prevention and treatment services must be urgently scaled up,” he said in his keynote address.

An estimated 1.6 million people are living with the disease across the region, and in several countries the epidemic shows signs of crossing from groups most at risk into the general population.

A significant increase in both financial resources and political commitment over the past two years suggest that the pieces are falling into place for regional and international partners to effectively tackle the epidemic. National health spending in many countries of the region is beginning to expand. Domestic spending on AIDS in Russia is slated to increase by 20 times in 2006 to over $100 million. In 2005, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin established HIV prevention as a national priority.

“In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, we have the opportunity to stem the growth of AIDS before it becomes a catastrophe,” the Executive Director of the UN-backed Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Richard Feachem, told a news conference. “The Global Fund is investing heavily to assist the region in facing this challenge, and is fully committed to rapid scale up of programs in the region.”

In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the Fund is now the largest external donor for efforts to prevent and treat HIV and tuberculosis, having already committed more than $700 million in the region. A significant investment of up to $300 million is being made in Russia, which has increased its domestic spending on HIV in parallel.

While Global Fund-financed programmes in the region are still young, by the end of 2005, they had reached more than 2.1 million people with AIDS prevention activities and provided HIV testing and counselling for more than 700,000 people - an essential measure for both preventing and treating the disease. In addition, these programs had brought 3,200 people onto antiretroviral treatment regimens and delivered care and support to 17,000 orphans and other vulnerable children.

In a related development, renowned British actress and Oscar nominee Naomi Watts, star of such internationally-acclaimed films as King Kong, The Ring, 21 Grams, and Mulholland Drive, has been appointed a Special UNAIDS Representative and will use her talent and profile to raise AIDS awareness and give greater voice to the needs of people living with HIV worldwide.

“Given the stark reality, I can no longer stand on the sidelines, so I’m grateful to be given this opportunity to do my small part,” Ms. Watts told a news briefing in New York where she was introduced in her latest role.

“It’s hard to believe that 25 million people have already died of AIDS and nearly 40 million more are now living with HIV. In fact during this briefing alone 300 people will die… and nearly 600 will become newly HIV-infected,” she added. The briefing lasted about 20 minutes.

The star, who recently went on a UNAIDS-led fact-finding mission to Zambia, showed photos of AIDS victims there and said one of her main goals would be to fight the stigma and discrimination attending the disease, thus impeding progress in treatment and prevention.

“Through her determination to make a difference, I know that she will be a strong and eloquent advocate for an enhanced global AIDS response,” Dr. Piot said in a message on her appointment. “I am also confident that the unique presence and passion that Ms. Watts brings to this issue will remind concerned citizens everywhere of the urgent need for serious and sustained action in the global fight against AIDS, and the vital role of the United Nations in this effort.”

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