The head of the UNAIDS agency says delegates at the Earth Summit in South Africa are largely overlooking the global AIDS epidemic. A U.N. report says AIDS is stopping, or even reversing development in the worst-affected countries.

UNAIDS director Peter Piot says delegates are not paying enough attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, as they make decisions about fighting poverty and saving the planet. That, he says, is a huge mistake. "If the AIDS epidemic is not contained in the worst-affected countries, we can simply forget about sustainable development," he said. "And the reason for that is, the AIDS epidemic is now turning into also an emerging crisis of human resources. Without people being alive and healthy, no development."

Mr. Piot says, in the proposed conference declaration, the language referring to AIDS has been watered down. He says he is quite disappointed in that decision, but he thinks it reflects the lack of priority placed on AIDS in the world today.

He believes world leaders cannot afford to keep ignoring HIV and AIDS.

The UNAIDS director has released a report that says, without urgent action, the epidemic will not only seriously undermine progress toward sustainable development, but in some countries, it will even reverse the gains already made.

Mr. Piot is calling for leadership from both governments and communities to break the silence around AIDS and develop the capacity to respond. He says serious resource commitments are needed to fully fund AIDS prevention and treatment programs.

And, Mr. Piot says, AIDS action needs to be integrated into every government department and every sector of civil society.

Backing up that call is Mechai Viravaidya, a senator in Thailand and the head of the Thai Population and Community Development Association. "AIDS is not just for doctors, not for ministers of health," he said. "Every head of government in the developing world must chair the national AIDS committee, or commission. The minister of health is a nice person, but a weak person in most economies. You need the prime minister or president of the country to chair the national AIDS committee, because this is a bigger fight than any fight any of us have ever had."

Thailand is considered one of the world's HIV/AIDS success stories. Through strong political commitment and large-scale prevention programs, Thailand has managed to turn around its AIDS epidemic. Every year for the past 10 years, the number of new HIV infections has dropped.

Mr. Viravaidya says, every sector of government got involved in fighting AIDS. "Even policemen got involved," he said. "Each time they handed out a parking ticket, they also gave out condoms. That, we call our cops and rubbers program."

Both Mr. Viravaidya and Mr. Piot of UNAIDS believe the epidemic can be turned around worldwide, if leaders from governments, civil society and business are willing to devote both financial resources and political will toward fighting the disease.