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Victory over AIDS Remains Elusive Dream - 2003-11-24

Two and a half years ago, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan made conquering AIDS one of his primary goals for the world body. Since then, he has been at the forefront of efforts to keep global attention focused on battling the deadly virus. But as the world prepares to mark World AIDS Day on December 1 - the third since the U.N. declaration of war on AIDS - progress has been maddeningly slow, with victory still a distant dream.

June 2001: Secretary General Annan issues a call to action at a historic Special Session on AIDS at the U.N. General Assembly. "Up to now, the world's response has not measured up to the challenge. But this year, we have seen a turning point," he said. AIDS can no longer do its deadly work in the dark."

Calling it a "moment of common purpose," Mr. Annan said the gravity of the crisis required a massive infusion of cash to wage war on AIDS. "That is why I have called for a Global AIDS and Health Fund, open to governments and private donors, to help us finance the comprehensive, coherent, coordinated strategy we need," he said.

The General Assembly responded to Mr. Annan's calls by adopting a set of time-based goals. Among them: amassing a war chest of $10 billion a year by 2005.

Two years later, however - in September 2003 - the Secretary General returned to the Assembly to report that progress is far behind schedule. "We have come a long way, but not far enough," he says. "Clearly, we will have to work harder … to ensure that our commitment is matched by the necessary resources and action."

Mr. Annan's World AIDS Day message to donor countries this year is: Increase your financial commitment. "There's a major global epidemic, and, I don't think we're doing enough. In terms of resources, by the year 2005, we'll need $10 billion a year," he says. "The Global AIDS fund itself is running out of money. We need a rapid injection of more resources"

And his message for leaders of countries ravaged by AIDS is: Speak out. Mr. Annan says, he is constantly reminding heads of state that their silence is costing lives.

"Constantly. I challenge them," says Mr. Annan. "I discuss it with them, and tell them to show leadership, and without that, their people are going to die."

He admits it is an uphill battle. With U.N. AIDS officials saying half the world's young people still don't know how AIDS is transmitted, Mr. Annan laments that, while some heads of state have joined the fight, others have not.

'Others have been more hesitant for cultural reasons. They won't even mention the word condom, much less encourage young people and the population to use condoms," he says. "So, it is not an easy task, but we are making progress."

Two-and-a-half years into the U.N.'s war on AIDS, progress is still being measured in small fractions, and isolated victories. Officials acknowledge that, at the current rate, it will be impossible to meet the targets set for 2005.

But there is good news. UNAIDS officials say they are increasingly getting a better understanding of what works, and why it works. New ideas, improved programs are in the pipeline.

The United Nations, under Kofi Annan's leadership, is gearing up for a long war, knowing full well that millions more will die. While victory is a distant dream, two-and-a-half years into the battle, there is a glimmer of hope.