Mon, Aug 14, 2006 - Page 6 News List

AIDS conference begins with new African emphasis


Thousands of AIDS experts, activists and politicians streamed into Toronto for the world's largest conference devoted to combating the disease -- many of them determined to speak for the world's 2.3 million infected children who are often forgotten.

Experts say that drugs exist to prevent infected mothers from transmitting the disease to children at birth, but many women don't have access to such medication and their babies don't live longer than five years.

"It's such an indictment of the international community and of multilateral agencies, I don't know how they can hold their heads up," said Stephen Lewis, UN Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Lewis blamed drug companies and apathetic governments, noting that drugs are used successfully in the West to treat and prevent the disease from birth.

"Why is the life of a Western child worth so much more than the life of an African child? We can begin saving lives tomorrow morning," he said.

These sensitive cultural issues, funding debates and hopeful new drug and scientific research will be on the table for some 24,000 delegates from 132 countries at the 16th International AIDS Conference, which opened yesterday and runs through Friday.

Bill and Melinda Gates -- with their US$30 billion commitment from Warren Buffet to fight such diseases as AIDS -- and former US president Bill Clinton are among the conference's speakers.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the first cases of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly 65 million people worldwide have been infected with HIV and AIDS has killed more than 25 million people.

Officials say there are still an estimated 11,000 new HIV infections and 8,000 deaths every day, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly 64 percent of those infected worldwide live.

On the eve of the summit, details emerged about the first test of a pill to prevent HIV infection. The experiment in Africa mainly showed that the drug Viread is safe when used for prevention.

The new approach involves Viread -- known generically as tenofovir -- a drug already used to treat AIDS. A study by Family Health International, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, tested it on HIV-negative women, many of whom were prostitutes at high risk. After an average of six months, only two HIV cases developed among the 427 women on Viread, compared with six infections among the 432 given a dummy drug.

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