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UNAIDS Czar Warns Efforts Falling Short

A high-level U.N. conference on AIDS opens Wednesday with a report showing progress in fighting the epidemic, tempered by statistics showing that the virus is spreading. Dozens of heads of state and government are gathering at U.N. headquarters for the three-day event.

Eight hundred organizations have been accredited for the annual gathering to assess progress in fighting HIV/AIDS. On the eve of the conference, UNAIDS Executive Director Dr. Peter Piot said despite decades of concerted effort, prevention and treatment programs are still falling short.

"Unfortunately I cannot tell you that we are on the way to reversing this epidemic," said Dr. Piot. "The truth is that we're still running behind, the crisis continues, and that's why we need this high-level meeting this week, because it gives us an excellent opportunity to begin the next phase of work where we're looking in terms of decades, in terms of generations, to stop this epidemic."

Dr. Piot noted, however, that important progress has been made in several countries in the fight against HIV. He says it is about time to begin receiving a return on the massive investment of the past years.

"The AIDS response has reached a critical mass in many countries," he said. "We have informed data and results, and now we must move from the current phase of crisis management to a long-term sustainable response."

Secretary-General Kofi Annan will address the opening session of the AIDS conference. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Mr. Annan said he would tell delegates that the war on HIV/AIDS must be won at the local level.

"We also need to work with the local communities to organize themselves and provide the leadership - the leadership from the political level to the community level," he said. "We are, unfortunately, nowhere near getting on top of the epidemic. And I hope that the discussion this week will re-energize the international community, and communities dealing with the epidemic, to go back to the grass roots and continue the fight."

The latest U.N. report shows that 65 million people have been infected with HIV since it was first identified 25 years ago. Twenty-five million people have died of AIDS.

This year's U.N. conference will for the first time feature an address by a person living with the HIV virus.

More than a dozen heads of state and 100 ministers are due to attend. First Lady Laura Bush will head the U.S. delegation at Friday's session.