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Annan urges unified fight against AIDS

Annan urges unified fight against AIDS as UN opens session on pandemic

As the United Nations General Assembly today opened a special meeting on HIV/AIDS, Secretary General Kofi Annan urged participants – including a dozen heads of State and numerous ministers – to unify their efforts to fight the disease especially as it affects young women, who globally suffer double the infection rates of young men.

Most countries have failed to meet the targets they pledged to achieve in their Declaration at the General Assembly’s special session on AIDS in 2001, including making sure that young people have an accurate understanding of HIV and how the virus can infect them, Mr. Annan told the opening plenary of the 191-member Assembly’s High-Level Meeting on AIDS.

“And the world has been unconscionably slow in meeting one of the most vital aspects of the struggle: measures to fight the spread of AIDS among women and girls,” he declared, recalling that in the Declaration, countries pledged to adopt national strategies to promote women's rights, protect women and girls from all forms of discrimination, and empower them to protect themselves against HIV.

“Yet today, infections among women are increasing in every part of the world, particularly among young women,” he observed, noting that globally, more than twice as many young women are infected as young men.

Mr. Annan welcomed Khensani Mavasa of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign as “the first person living with HIV to address the General Assembly.” (It is not known whether or how many other infected persons have spoken to that body, but none has done so openly to date.)

A dozen heads of State, more than 100 cabinet ministers and some 1,000 representatives of civil society and the private sector were expected to attend the meeting and, in meetings and round table sessions, are considering a 630-page report on the global progress in combating AIDS.

The Secretary-General noted that in the 25 years since the world heard of AIDS, the disease has moved from local obscurity to global emergency. “HIV/AIDS has unfolded along a pattern we tend to see only in nightmares. It has spread further, faster and with more catastrophic long-term effects than any other disease. Its impact has become a devastating obstacle to the progress of humankind.”

Denial dogged the response to AIDS and millions paid with their lives, he said.

But on a positive note, Mr. Annan – who has made the fight against AIDS a personal crusade and hallmark of his tenure – said his hope that the 2001 special session would be a turning-point has been borne out. More than 70 countries have since quadrupled access to HIV testing and counselling services. More than 20 countries are providing antiretroviral (ARV) treatment to at least half of those in need. The global financing target has been met and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria that the Secretary-General championed is now fully operational.

On the other hand, the vast majority of countries have not met the targets in the Declaration and “these shortcomings are deadly,” Mr. Annan warned, appealing for visionary leadership, as well as unprecedented partnership among governments, the private sector and civil society.

The High-Level meeting, which ends on 2 June, must chart the way forward, Mr. Annan said. It must set Member States firmly on a course to get as close as possible to universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010, last September’s General Assembly World Summit goal, as well as the Millennium Development Goal, pledged in 2000, of halting and beginning to reverse the spread of HIV and AIDS among women, men and children by 2015, he said.

Speaking to reporters, the Secretary-General was asked about efforts by some States to avoid mention of certain marginalized groups, including prostitutes, drug users and homosexuals, in the draft declaration. Mr. Annan replied with an appeal for all to be “realistic” in approaching the epidemic.

“We need to be able to protect the most vulnerable, and if we are here to try and end the epidemic, hide it, we will not succeed by putting our head in the sand and pretending that these people do not exist or they do not need help,” he said. “We need to help them and we need to resist any attempt to prevent us from recognizing the need for action and assistance. And I will say publicly: we should all challenge the governments concerned to be realistic and responsible.”

General Assembly President Jan Eliasson, referring to the symbolism of Ms. Mavasa’s participation, told the meeting that the face of the pandemic has increasingly become young, poor and female, yet only one in five young women knows how to prevent HIV transmission and fewer than one in 10 HIV-positive pregnant women is receiving antiretrovirals (ARVs).

“I very much hope that the feminization of the epidemic will be a major element of our deliberations this week, and that we will take decisions which will have a tangible impact on young women’s lives,” he said.

Nearly 6 million people need HIV treatment but have no access to it, while four out of five people who are at risk of infection lack access to any form of prevention. Though governments must play a central role in the response, neither they nor the UN could tackle this global emergency alone, he said.

“We need individuals on the ground. We need communities. We need civil society in all its forms. We need business and trade unions. We need scientists. We need the media. We need local government. We need Parliamentarians. We need our regional and multilateral institutions. And, above all, we need people living with HIV, and those at greatest risk of infection, to be at the centre of the response,” Mr. Eliasson said.

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