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New US AIDS Coordinator Outlines Strategies to Fight Disease - 2003-12-11

President Bush's new global AIDS coordinator is outlining strategies to fight the worldwide epidemic. Ambassador Randall Tobias told reporters Thursday global and local leadership is needed to curb the spread of the disease.

Mr. Tobias has only been in office for two months, but he has already visited eight of the countries hardest hit by AIDS and the virus that causes it, HIV.

The ambassador says he is struck by the amazing work being done to battle the menace, but stresses much more remains to be done. "During 2002 alone, three million people died from the complications of AIDS," he said. "At the same time, five million people became newly infected. Do the math: we are losing the war. At the current pace, we are headed for the destruction of the world."

Ambassador Tobias says without intervention, experts predict more than 85 million people will be infected with HIV or AIDS by the year 2010.

But he says the U.S. is embarking on an unprecedented effort to turn the tide against the disease through its planned $15 billion investment over the next five years. He says first and foremost is blocking the virus' transmission.

"This is a disease that is 100 percent preventable," he said, "so prevention is the chief weapon in the spread of HIV, and it must be our number one priority."

He says his office is working on how to implement programs in five target areas, including prevention through teaching abstinence and behavior change for youth.

But the public affairs director for an organization that distributes health products to low income people in developing countries says that is not enough. David Olson, from Population Services International, says although he is "very encouraged" by Ambassador Tobias' approaches, he is disappointed about the lack of focus on one key method of prevention.

"He did not mention condoms until he was asked specifically by someone in the audience," he said. "My organization has been promoting abstinence, fidelity, partner reduction and condoms for years. And all of those strategies are appropriate in different target groups... We're just saying don't criticize condoms, which are scientifically proven to be effective -- more effective than seat belts, more effective than bicycle helmets."

Some advocates of HIV-AIDS prevention methods fear President Bush's policies are geared toward faith-based groups that do not promote and even discourage condoms and other birth control methods that also can help stop the spread of the disease.

But Mr. Tobias says the fundamental U.S. policy on prevention is based on an A B C concept: A for abstinence, B for being faithful, and C for the correct and consistent use of condoms.

Ambassador Tobias also says beyond prevention, efforts to reduce the stigma associated with the disease and programs to save lives through medical treatments such as antiretroviral drugs are top priorities.

But he says all efforts must be coordinated by local communities because "the battle in the end will be won or lost in places you cannot find on a map."