?Universal Action Now? is the theme of the upcoming XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico City [3-8 August]. The conference will look at some of the issues that are impeding that goal, with daily panels of plenary speakers and workshops. Among the factors that will be considered are a lack of political will to allocate funding, and discrimination against those who are HIV positive. From Washington, William Eagle reports.  

Five years ago,a gang of men stoned to death South African AIDS activist Gugu Dlamini. Her offence: she announced on a Zulu language radio station that she was HIV-positive. 

Violence is just one result of the stigma still surrounding the disease and its carriers. This case and similar stories of abuse is one reason why South African judge Edwin Cameron decided to attend the Mexico City gathering this year. Cameron, who is HIV-positive, will lead a plenary session on another cause behind the stigma of HIV: the criminal prosecution of those accused of spreading the disease. As a result, he says up to 30 million Africans who are likely carrying the virus fail to get diagnosed.

"The point I will make at the conference," he says, "is that those statutes, apart from their very broad and vague wording, are very bad for the central issue of the epidemic, which is getting treatment to people. With criminal laws like that on the statute books, people are not going to want to be tested. Why would you if you are going to expose yourself to prosecution ? " 

Cameron is just one of 17 guest speakers to lead plenary sessions or lead workshops on topics that are discouraging people from seeking treatment or gaining universal access to anti-retrovirals.    

Other speakers include Adeeba Kamarulzaman, the president of the Malaysian AIDS Council and head of infectious diseases at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.

She?ll address the conference on the legal obstacles to ending drug abuse, a leading cause of the spread of AIDS. 

She says the sharing of syringes by drug abusers is behind much of the spread of the disease in China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.  She says, "prevention needs to be strengthened particularly in Asia where there are new infections happening every day, especially in marginalized communities. It?s [about]  evidence-based HIV prevention like needle exchange programs and the authority [to initiate] opiate substitution programs." 

Dr. Adeeba explains that two non-addictive medicines -- methadone and bupenorphine -- can be given to wean drug users from heroin.  Outreach workers can also provide them with clean needles. 

She wants a debate over UN and national impediments to these strategies ? such as ?zero tolerance? policies that ban
needle exchanges, and the use of drugs like methadone, to prevent the spread of HIV among those who inject illegal drugs.

Pedro Cahn is the president of The International Aids Society which is convening the Mexico City Conference.  Dr. Cahn says the meeting will also address a charge made by some ? that the attention given to HIV treatment and prevention weakens overall health care in the developing world.

"This is absolutely not true," he says. "African health care systems were not OK before [the AIDS epidemic] and have become better after the opening of clinics. [Now] people have at least one point of care in areas where nothing happened before."  

Dr. Cahn says activists at the conference are likely to encourage the integration of reproductive health services with treatment for tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases -- illnesses that further weaken immune systems infected with the HIV virus.  They say the effort would not only strengthen national health care systems, but help meet the UN goal of ensuring universal access to AIDS prevention and treatment by 2010.