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World  Leaders Discuss Politics of AIDS in Barcelona

Several current and former presidents and prime ministers from North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia gathered at the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona Thursday to urge their counterparts around the world to fully participate in the fight against AIDS. They urged a boost in rich country financial help and cheaper drugs from pharmaceutical companies.

For the first time at an International AIDS Conference, once and present national leaders participated in a public meeting to outline leadership strategies in the AIDS struggle and to hear from people living with the disease. The discussion brought the political leaders of Portugal, Rwanda, Mozambique, and St. Kitts together with former heads of state from the United States, Canada, India, and Tanzania.

The consensus among them was that leadership makes a difference in people's attitudes about the virus and actions they take against it. Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio said, " Our prime responsibility is to make sure that AIDS remains high on the political agenda."

The president of one of Africa's most AIDS-afflicted countries, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, urged his peers elsewhere to ensure that national programs meet the needs of HIV patients and that budgets conform to commitments. He also called on them to be strong advocates for immediate access to AIDS drugs for their people.

The drug access issue has been a major theme throughout the 14th AIDS conference, with delegates and scientists pressing pharmaceutical companies to make expensive HIV therapies affordable to all who need them.

Former Indian prime minister I.K.Gujral argued that the drugs should be priced not on a market basis but socially, that terms for drug patents be dramatically shortened , and that export restrictions on drugs be eased. "There should be no restrictions on export of these drugs by compulsory license holders to any country in addition to those who do not have the capacity to produce," he said.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton, who gathered the leaders together as co-chair of the International AIDS Trust, advised poor nations to band together regionally as the Caribbean states have just done and make their best deal with companies that make AIDS drugs. Otherwise, he said they should buy generic drugs made in Brazil and India.

Mr. Clinton also added his voice to the rising chorus of those at the conference and elsewhere who are urging wealthy nations to give more money to poor, AIDS-wracked countries.

"The rich countries should figure out what they owe and commit to pay, and pay in a timely fashion," he said. Second, the advocates and the people representing the poorer countries with high infection rates should figure out how to get the money and then what to do with it."

Mr. Clinton attracted the loudest applause of all the eight leaders at the discussion, a reception that contrasted sharply with attitudes about the current U.S. government expressed at the AIDS Conference. U.S. Health Secretary Tommy Thompson was jeered loudly earlier this week in Barcelona as he outlined the Bush administration's assistance against the AIDS campaign, while the wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel, sharply criticized the United States for giving too little.

United Nations AIDS Program executive director Peter Piot opened the discussion by the eight current and past leaders by saying they should pressure their peers worldwide on the cause for AIDS.