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On World AIDS Day, a Call for Strategies to Prevent the Spread of HIV/AIDS

In advance of World AIDS Day, the United Nations released some chilling statistics: nearly 40 million people now have HIV/AIDS; there were more than 4 million new infections this year, and where HIV prevention programs have not been sustained, the number of new infections has increased.

To mark World AIDS Day, the World Health Organization and other public health officials are calling for greater attention to preventing the spread of AIDS.

A sick little boy is one picture of AIDS. World health officials are hoping that his picture can be replaced by this another one: a child being tested for AIDS so treatment can begin early if the tests are positive.

As the AIDS pandemic spreads, public health officials want more focus on preventing new infections.

Yet, the World Health Organization reports HIV prevention programs are not reaching people most at risk.

The World Bank helps countries develop HIV prevention programs, yet Debrework Zewdie director of the bank's HIV/AIDS program says many countries ignore their citizens who are most at risk. "If the evidence in a specific country shows the epidemic is driven by commercial sex work or injecting drug use, any country which is responsible for the welfare of its population, should primarily focus on these population groups before the epidemic spreads to the general population."

The World Health Organization says even limited resources that target at- risk populations, have high returns on the investment.

In China, programs focused on sex workers show increased condom use and decreased rates of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV included.

The WHO reports an increase in the number of HIV cases in Asia and Latin America through homosexual transmission. Yet, the international health agency says prevention programs are not reaching these groups.

In Russia, the disease spreads mainly through drug users who share needles.

Two years ago, Joanne Csete, then with Human Rights Watch, projected an increase in the number of HIV cases in Russia. "Without any good prevention policies, good investment in what we know works, it could get very bad here very fast."

The United Nations says drug users account for three-fourths of the HIV/AIDS cases in Russia.

About one million Russians are infected with HIV/AIDS. The UN predicts that by 2020, the number could jump to 14.5 million.

Africa still remains the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic, and many Africans do not know about safe sex practices. But the news is not all bad. In many countries, [editors note: Botswana, Burundi, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe] the number of young people infected has dropped since the year 2000.

Experts in HIV/AIDS want to promote programs that could reduce the spread of the virus that causes AIDS.

These programs include greater use of condoms. Debrawork Zewdie says condom programs target women, another mistake. "The second mistake is, we never focused on men. Many of the prevention strategies in many of the hard-hit countries, it is telling the vulnerable 'don't do this, do that.' These are the two things in my mind, that has fueled the epidemic, especially in eastern and southern Africa."

Empowering women is critical in the effort to stop AIDS. Programs that provide small loans to women so they can start their own businesses do just that.

A few years ago, VOA met Brenda; a former prostitute who found out she had HIV. "I couldn't tell anybody. I told my friend, right? I stayed at home a week. I couldn't go to work. I was just crying."

With financial support from the community, Brenda and other women were able to raise vegetables and chickens and sell them. Brenda also works in the group’s office.

A recent study shows giving women small business loans and training them on gender/HIV issues reduces their chances of getting AIDS.

Yet another prevention program includes male circumcision. Circumcision reduces men's chances of getting AIDS.

There is still no AIDS vaccine, and until there is, countries need to help those with the greatest chance of contracting the disease, even if these people are considered undesirable. Right now this is critical to efforts to control the devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Video: Courtesy of Family Health International