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|Hopes Pinned On New Drug Plan On World AIDS Day|
By Shapi Shacinda
LIVINGSTONE, Zambia, Mon 1 December 2003 (Reuters) - A global plan to rush life-saving drugs to millions of people with AIDS was launched on Monday amid warnings on World AIDS Day that the war against the disease was being lost.
As world leaders called for urgent action to fight the scourge that has devastated many of the globe's poorest countries, the Vatican defended its controversial position against advocating condoms as protection against HIV.
"We appear to be losing the fight against AIDS at the moment," said U.S. Health Secretary Tommy Thompson, marking the day in Zambia, one of the worst-hit nations.
"We need to redouble our efforts. This war has more casualties than any other war as we are losing 3 million people every year," Thompson said.
As millions of people marched in parades and held prayers around the world, Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for "lightning" action to fight the disease that is killing and infecting people at record rates.
While China aired its first officially backed TV ad for condoms, the Vatican said fidelity, chastity and abstinence were the best ways to fight HIV/AIDS in a "pan-sexualist society."
In a clear reference to condoms, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan said information campaigns should not be "based on policies that foster immoral and hedonistic lifestyles and behavior, favoring the spread of the evil."
40 MILLION INFECTED
World AIDS Day came amid news of a new $5.5 billion United Nations emergency strategy to supply badly needed drugs to fight the disease that now infects 40 million people around the world.
At least 6 million people living with HIV-AIDS in developing countries urgently need anti-retroviral drug treatment to stay alive and healthy, but only between 300,000 and 400,000 are getting the costly drugs. The plan aims to get the treatment to half the 6 million people by the end of 2005.
"Eight thousand people die every day and we recognize this as a moral imperative to act," Dr. Bjorn Melgaard, a senior World Health Organization official, told reporters in Bangkok.
Estimates released by UNAIDS last week showed deaths and new cases reached unprecedented levels in 2003 and were set to rise further as the pandemic maintains its deadly grip on sub-Saharan Africa and spreads across Eastern Europe and Asia.
AIDS will have killed about 3 million people this year. Five million more will have been infected.
Leading U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs attacked President Bush for pushing war and neglecting the developing world by spending a small fraction of what America invests in its military on the fight against poverty and AIDS.
"Development was pushed off the world's agenda this year by an agenda about war," said Sachs, who is a special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Medecins Sans Frontieres said governments should provide AIDS drugs free under the new plan and pharmaceutical firms should cut prices further.
"For the poorest no price will be affordable: governments of both developing and developed countries must meet these costs," the medical charity's president, Morten Rostrup, said in a statement.
AFRICA HARDEST HIT
Sub-Saharan Africa remains the worst affected region with about 3.2 million new infections and 2.3 million deaths in 2003.
Ebrahim Samba, the WHO's Africa director, told Reuters he was confident modern drugs would defeat Africa's stubborn AIDS stigma by turning a fatal disease into a manageable condition, but it would take time to change attitudes.
"Working in Africa, you have to be pathologically optimistic. A pessimist doesn't survive here," he said.
Archbishop Tutu told South Africa to move like "greased lightning" to treat people with HIV. "It is absolutely blasphemous, totally blasphemous to say that God is punishing us...it is the most awful use of religion," he said.
In Muslim Somaliland, religious affairs "minister" Sheikh Mohamed Sufi told a rally: "The best way to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS...is to stop committing adultery, and to live as God ordered us to do."
In the Asia-Pacific region 1 million people were infected this year, taking the total to more than 7 million.
Several countries, including China and India, face major epidemics unless effective action is taken, experts say.
In Cambodia, the worst AIDS-affected country in Asia, about 3,000 students, activists and dancers in white and red T-shirts paraded through Phnom Penh before piling into buses to spread the anti-AIDS message in the countryside.
In Singapore women in mini-skirts and tight spandex tops handed out free condoms on the wealthy island-state where HIV infections rose seven percent in the first 10 months of 2003.
In China, long criticized for a slow response to the threat, the first officially backed TV condom ad has finally been aired and Beijing has promised free anti-retroviral drugs to poor victims. (Additional reporting by Darren Schuettler in Bangkok, Jonathan Ansfield in Beijing, Ed Cropley in Phnom Penh, Jason Szep in Singapore, William Maclean in Nairobi, Philip Pullella in Rome).