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Protests, Challenges Mark AIDS Conference in Nigeria

The latest conference on AIDS in Africa has been marked by protests, discord, absent guests and alarming statistics. With just ten percent of the world's total population, latest figures show that Africa is home to two-thirds of all the people infected with HIV, and the percentage is much higher for children.

HIV-positive women gathered outside the conference hall in Abuja demanding free treatment for their condition.

The 14th international conference on AIDS and sexually transmitted disease in Africa coincided with reports that Nigeria's government was charging HIV positive patients for drugs it gets free from donors.

A spokesman for the French-based group Doctors Without Borders, James Lorenz said every effort should be made for AIDS treatment drugs to be free in Africa. "We believe it's a political decision," he said. "In many African countries, we are facing very poor conditions and low budgets, but health budgets are already heavily subsidized. So I think it's a political decision that has to be taken with the international community, with the donor community, to decide as it was decided actually 15 years ago for TB (tuberculosis). It has been said across the continent, TB is a chronic disease, [treatment] needs to be free. We just say, do the same for HIV-AIDS."

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo made just a brief appearance at the conference's opening, while former U.S. President Bill Clinton and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who were expected, stayed away.

If present, they would have heard that more than 90 percent of the world's children infected with HIV are in Africa, and half of them will die before the age of two.

Deaths in Africa linked to AIDS rose to nearly 2.5 million in 2005.

In an interview with VOA, the deputy head of the U.N.-AIDS program, Michel Sidibe of Mali says a major challenge in Africa is that there is no competent staff outside of cities to help afflicted populations. "We need to look at what are the capacity existing in a rural community, which is not conventional," he said. "How do we transform this group of people who are there to become counselors, to really accompany the project so we fight against discrimination, we fight against stigmatization? I think this is something which we did not look at properly."

He also said there were actors and funding to combat AIDS but little coordination. So, he said, public servants and associations spend more time in their offices writing reports and trying to get access to funding rather than making a difference.

But one participant, Tewodros Melesse, refused to give in to the dominating doom and gloom of the conference. "Africa has been hopeful since its existence. There is no time Africa will give up hope," he said.

"Has anybody who was a South African given up hope because of apartheid?" he continued. "When you were governed under apartheid for over two generations, it was hope that liberated South Africa from apartheid. And today the battle of AIDS is not going to make us give up hope. You are optimist or pessimist when you have a choice. We have no choice. We have no choice but to survive and to be hopeful for a better Africa."

The conference ended with competing protests and debates between those wanting to promote the use of condoms more aggressively and others advocating abstinence for non-married Africans.