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Conference to Press AIDS Battle

Universal Action Now is the theme of the upcoming International AIDS Conference in Mexico City.  From Washington, VOA's William Eagle reports that among the factors that will be discussed at the conference are a lack of political will to allocate funding, and discrimination against those who are HIV positive.

Five years ago, a gang of men stoned to death South African AIDS activist Gugu Dlamini.  Her offense: she announced on a Zulu language radio station that she was HIV-positive. 

Violence is just one result of the stigma surrounding the disease and its carriers.  This case and similar stories of abuse prompted Justice Edwin Cameron of South Africa to attend the Mexico City gathering this year. 

Cameron, who is HIV-positive, will lead a plenary session about one of the factors fueling stigma - the criminalization of those living with HIV.  

The South Africa Supreme Court of Appeals justice says 11 African countries [including Kenya, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Liberia] have statutes that can be used to prosecute HIV-positive people who do not inform their partners of their infection - even if they have not spread the virus. 

Justice Cameron says the result is up to 30 million Africans who are likely carrying the virus, fail to get diagnosed. "The point I will make at the conference is that those statutes, apart from their very broad and vague wording, are very bad for the central issue of the epidemic, which is getting treatment to people.  With criminal laws like that on the statute books, people are not going to want to be tested.  Why would you if you are going to expose yourself to prosecution?," he said.

Cameron is just one of 17 guest speakers to lead discussions on topics that are discouraging people from seeking treatment or gaining universal access to HIV medicine.

Other speakers include Malaysian AIDS Council president Dr. Adeeba Kamarulzaman.

She will address the conference on the legal obstacles to ending HIV transmission among people who inject drugs, a leading cause of the spread of AIDS worldwide. "Prevention needs to be strengthened ...  It is about evidence-based HIV prevention like needle exchange programs and authority [to initiate] opiate substitution programs ..."

Dr. Adeeba explains that two non-addictive medicines, methadone and bupenorphine, can be given to wean drug users from heroin.  Outreach workers can also provide them with clean needles. 

But she says criminalization of drug use discourages some from seeking treatment.  It also makes those who are HIV-positive more vulnerable to blood-borne infections like hepatitis-C.

She wants a debate over U.N. and national impediments to these strategies, such as zero tolerance policies that ban needle exchanges or the use of non-addictive opiate substitutes to prevent the spread of HIV among drug users who use needles.

The Buenos Aires based International Aids Society based in is conducting the Mexico City conference.  Its president, Pedro Cahn says the meeting will also address a charge made by some - that the attention to HIV treatment and prevention weakens underdeveloped health care systems. 

Dr. Cahn rejects the charge. "This is important because some voices have been raised claiming that we are putting too much money into the AIDS struggle and are weakening health-care systems, which is absolutely not true ...  African health-care systems were not OK before [the AIDS epidemic] and have become better after the opening of clinics.  [Now] people have at least one point of care in areas where nothing happened before."

He says activists at the conference are likely to encourage the integration of reproductive health services with treatment for illnesses that further weaken immune systems infected with the HIV virus, like tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases.  They say the effort would not only strengthen national health-care systems, but help meet the U.N. goal of ensuring universal access to AIDS prevention and treatment by 2010.

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