Empowering women in developing countries to protect themselves against HIV with hopeful preventative drugs could be the "next big breakthrough" in combating the virus that has already claimed 25 million lives, Bill and Melinda Gates told a global conference.
The couple joined more than 24,000 scientists, activists, celebrities and health workers from 132 countries on Sunday at the opening of the weeklong 16th International AIDS Conference.
The Microsoft founder told the opening ceremonies that the search for a vaccine to prevent the virus that causes AIDS, and universal treatment for those infected with HIV, were now top priorities.
"At the same time, we have to understand that the goal of universal treatment -- or even the more modest goal of significantly increasing the percentage of people who get treatment -- cannot happen unless we dramatically reduce the rate of new infections," he said.
Gates noted that between 2003 and last year, the number of people in low- and middle-income countries on antiretroviral drugs increased by 450,000 each year. Yet over the same period, the number of people who became infected with HIV averaged more than 4 million a year.
"In other words, for each new person who got treatment for HIV, more than 10 people became infected," he said. "Even during our greatest advance, we are falling behind."
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given US$1.9 billion to support HIV/AIDS projects worldwide since 1995 and announced last week a US$500 million grant to the Global Fund to fight AIDS.
"We want to call on everyone here and around the world to help speed up what we hope will be the next big breakthrough in the fight against AIDS -- the discovery of a microbicide or an oral prevention drug that can block the transmission of HIV," Gates said.
"This could mark a turning point in the epidemic, and we have to make it an urgent priority," he said.
The couple called for greater advocacy to break the "cruel stigma" of AIDS for women in impoverished nations who typically have little say over their own sex lives or health.
"We need tools that will allow women to protect themselves," Gates said. "This is true whether the woman is a faithful married mother of small children, or a sex worker trying to scrape out a living in a slum. No matter where she lives, who she is, or what she does -- a woman should never need her partner's permission to save her own life."
Melinda Gates said the couple visited an AIDS hospice in southern India last December and noticed the wards were divided by gender; the male ward filled with families and flowers.
"Across a courtyard, we saw a very different scene," she said. "The female ward was a lonely, desolate place. There were no visitors, just women wasting away from AIDS. There was no love, no warmth, no comfort. Just wives, daughters and mothers, left alone to die."
"Stigma makes it easier for political leaders to stand in the way of saving lives," Melinda Gates said. "In some countries with widespread AIDS epidemics, leaders have declared the distribution of condoms immoral, ineffective, or both ... But withholding condoms does not mean fewer people have sex; it means fewer people have safe sex, and more people die."
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