Sat, Jul 17, 2004 - Page 5 News List

AIDS meeting ends with little progress and stark divisions

DPA , BANGKOK

The 15th International AIDS Conference ended with a sense of "relief" yesterday, with stark divisions evident between the world's political and medical establishments and the millions who suffer in silence with the killer virus.

"It is such a relief for myself and all my colleagues that this conference ends successfully and uneventfully today," said Thai Public Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan in her closing address to the week-long conference.

Like many government officials, drug company executives and particularly IS representatives, Sudarat found herself in the firing line from AIDS activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The confrontational tactics of some of the activists, including noisy demonstrations and interruptions of officials' speeches, embarrassed the Thai hosts but also helped define the main issues facing the battle against HIV/AIDS.

Sudarat praised Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra for hosting the conference and the high priority he has given to the anti-AIDS fight. She hailed the cooperative spirit of the 19,000 participants at the conference, describing it as the largest and most successful such meeting ever.

But NGOs representing Thai intravenous drug users blasted Thaksin for his draconian war on drugs, which resulted in the killing of more than 2,000 alleged drug users and dealers last year.

The activists said the anti-drug war had driven addicts further underground and made it more difficult to obtain clean needles, thus spreading HIV to one of society's most vulnerable groups.

Paolo Teixeira, a conference delegate from Brazil, said the US government's drug policy had also set back anti-AIDS campaigns by providing conventional weapons and chemical weapons to drug enforcers and pushing drug users further to the margins of society.

In a speech to the conference, Teixeira urged delegates to "just say no to the war on drugs."

The US government also faced opposition for pushing its moral agenda by stressing abstinence rather than condoms to stop the spread of AIDS via sexual contact.

The Bush administration was also roundly condemned for supporting efforts by multinational drug companies to maintain their patent monopolies for some anti-AIDS drugs.

Activists said the pharmaceutical companies' lobbying to maintain their profit margins at the expense of AIDS patients in the developing world made a mockery of the conference motto, "Access for all."

"As a person living with HIV, I believe one of the most important challenges is the access to treatment, care and support for positive people," said Gracia Violeta Rose of the International Community of Women Living with HIV and AIDS in her closing ceremony speech to the conference.

She said bureaucratic delays and high prices of much-needed anti-AIDS drugs had caused many "needless deaths" in the developing world.

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