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International AIDS Conference Ends in Kenya - 2003-09-26

A week-long international conference on AIDS in Africa ended in Kenya Friday on a somber note, with delegates expressing frustration and anger at what they see as the world's half-hearted effort to help the millions of people living with HIV.

Speaker after speaker took aim at governments, the United Nations, international financial institutions, pharmaceutical companies and others for doing too little to help the more than 28 million sub-Saharan Africans suffering from HIV and AIDS.

A South African activist with the Treatment Action Campaign, Nomfundo Dubula, summed up the mood of many at the conference.

"As communities, as people living with HIV, as activists, we are angry because our people are dying," she said. "They are dying unnecessarily."

She focused on one of the key problems highlighted at the conference - the lack of access to life-prolonging anti-retroviral, or ARV, drugs. What puts the drugs out of reach for most of those who need them are high prices, patent restrictions and governments' unwillingness to help.

A U.S. diplomat in Nairobi, Leslie Rowe, was heckled by the angry crowd in the hall, even as she was reminding the delegates the United States helped pay for the conference, and plans to spend billions to help fight AIDS in Africa.

"Our embassy in Nairobi provided the computers that made it possible to have the daily newspaper written and produced," she reminded.

The chanting activists were calling for six million people worldwide to be given immediate anti-retroviral drugs and other treatment.

The World Health Organization says only about 50,000 people in Africa living with HIV/AIDS are taking ARV drugs out of 4.1 million people in need.

A pharmacist with Doctors Without Borders, Sophie-Marie Scouflaire, said the conference was a good networking opportunity for African healthcare professionals and activists.

The executive director of U.N. AIDS, Dr. Peter Piot, also added a positive note to the conference, saying it will enter history as 'the time we began to break the back of the AIDS pandemic.'

He singled out the World Health Organization's plan to provide three million people with ARV drugs by 2005 as the highlight of the gathering.