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International AIDS Conference Ends in Mexico City

The 17th International AIDS Conference came to an end Friday in Mexico City, with calls for more access to treatment for those suffering from the deadly disease and more attention to prevention methods that have proved effective. The next AIDS conference will take place two years from now in Vienna and, as VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Mexico City, organizers hope there will be more progress on these issues by then.

At the AIDS Conference this week, participants discussed the tendency in some parts of the world to neglect HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programs out of fear that funds would be reduced for other diseases.

In a VOA interview just before the conference closed, the president of the International AIDS Society, Pedro Cahn of Argentina, said there was broad agreement among participants here that there should be no such conflict. "I hope that this conference is starting to put the last nail in the coffin of this absurd debate between funding for AIDS against health care systems," he said.

Cahn says studies have made clear that public health improves overall when there is an effective HIV/AIDS program in place.

The good news, provided by a United Nations AIDS agency report last month, is that the rate of HIV infections worldwide has gone down and that the number of people on therapy jumped ten times in the last six years. But there are regions of the world like sub-Saharan Africa where the disease remains a major threat to public health.

Pedro Cahn says it is clear that therapy and prevention go hand in hand. He says the goal of providing universal anti-retroviral therapy to HIV-infected people around the world is a difficult but worthy goal that not benefits the infected and helps prevent the spread of the virus.

"If we would be able to duplicate the number of patients on treatment or if we would be able to half the number of new infections, we still would not be there. So we understand that rolling out the anti-viral therapy is a means also to serve as a prevention tool, because if you lower the median variable load of the population level probably you would get less infection," he said.

Anti-retroviral drugs came into use about a decade ago and have proven to be effective in keeping HIV-infected people alive and healthy. But use of the drugs is far more common in richer countries. In the developing world only three million people are taking the anti-viral drugs on a regular basis. They represent just over 30 percent of the infected population in developing nations.

A major problem is the high cost of the drugs and the lack of government backing for programs that would provide them at lower cost to those who need them. A United Nations resolution calls for universal access to the anti-retroviral drugs by the year 2010, but AIDS Conference organizers say that goal is unlikely to be met.