The head of the International AIDS Society (IAS) says concern over a new strain of flu or the current economic crisis should not distract from the long-term fight against HIV/AIDS. 

Dr. Julio Mantaner is calling the World Health Assembly members, meeting in Geneva this week, to meet their commitments on the epidemic. From Vancouver, Canada, he says the gains made against AIDS must not be lost.

"We have over the last several years made significant progress with regard to the fight against HIV at a global level. It is clear that we failed to meet original targets, but despite that, if you look at the number of people receiving anti-retroviral therapy in low and middle income countries, we have gone from?half a million people around the end of 2003  to over three million people by the end of 2007," he says.

Three million still too few 

"We need to recognize more being are being infected every day by a factor of nearly two than the number of people accessing anti-retroviral therapy," he says.

The IAS president says there's a momentum now in the fight against HIV/AIDS that must continue.

"First and foremost, anti-retroviral therapy is saving lives of people?. Second?it is preserving the social network, the family structure?that is so severely compromised by HIV and AIDS," he says.

And addressing HIV/AIDS has spurred health officials to do more about other health problems as well, such as TB and malaria. Mantaner says, "We have seen a strengthening of child and maternal health. We have seen improvements in sexual health?and primary care. And all of these are critical."

It's possible the disease can be controlled. "The WHO (World Health Organization) has estimated that within 30 to 50 years of treating everybody that is infected with HIV, using a hypothetical scenario, we could see the control of HIV. What they call HIV elimination," he says.

Other concerns could distract from AIDS

Mantaner says, 'We need to put things into the proper perspective. No doubt that SARS,Avian Flu or whatever new flu or any other epidemic that may show up the day after tomorrow?is something that we need to respond to. But it cannot be at the expense of a proven, established killer," he says.

Vigilance is important to detect emerging infectious diseases and epidemics. But the IAS leaders says, "If we take away resources from an established epidemic?to deal with the next new potential epidemic?we're (doing) ourselves a very serious disservice."

Three decades of AIDS

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is about 30 years old and Mantaner is worried that donor nations may be growing weary of battling the disease. Plus, there's the global recession and concern over the A-H1N1 flu.

"That's our biggest fear. That at a time of competing needs or hypothetical epidemics?national or international donors, multi-lateral donors are losing their interest?. This is a long-term battle." he says.

While praising the United States for being a leader in that battle, Mantaner is somewhat disappointed with President Obama's proposed funding for AIDS-related program. He says the funding falls short of campaign promises.

"But on that same note, we would like to remind people that the leaders of the G8 countries, including my own prime minister in Canada, have failed to deliver according to their promises. And all we are asking is that they refocus their efforts, meet their commitments," he says.

If commitments are not met? 

"History is going to judge us very harshly. We've been distracted by the epidemic of the day without recognizing that we have a killer within our midst that we can control," he says.