The Director of the United Nations AIDS program says discrimination against victims of HIV/AIDS is a key factor in the spread of the disease. Dr. Peter Piot told a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission that respecting the human rights of HIV/AIDS sufferers would help curb the spread of the pandemic.

U.N.-AIDS Director, Peter Piot says the HIV epidemic now ranks as the most devastating ever. U.N. figures show more than 60 million people world wide are infected and 20 million have died. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa and the fourth biggest global killer.

Dr. Piot notes life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is now 47 years. Without AIDS, it would have been 62 years. He says discrimination and stigmatization of AIDS sufferers drives the disease underground and contributes to the spread of the disease, worsening the epidemic in a vicious cycle.

"Human rights promotion and protection is essential to reversing this vicious cycle. This is one of the most important lessons of the last 20 years of fighting AIDS. As freedom from discrimination makes people with HIV less fearful of disclosing their status it gives them greater capacity to organize together and to contribute to the response," Dr. Piot said.

Dr. Piot said human rights and fundamental freedoms are essential to reduce vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. He said people stricken with the disease, regardless of whether they are rich or poor, should have equal access to the medicines which can treat them. But, he noted unequal access to HIV/AIDS-related treatments remains a global reality.

"Differential pricing and licensing for production and importation can improve access to HIV treatments, while protecting the profits that the pharmaceutical industry needs to sustain new research. We do have a responsibility to find a new way of doing business that would take advantage of these mechanisms, ensuring continued innovation in pharmaceutical research while making new HIV medicines available and affordable to all people living with HIV," Dr. Piot said.

The U.N.-AIDS chief notes the price of anti-retroviral therapy has dropped from around $12,000 two year ago to around $350 in the poorest countries today. He acknowledges that even this figure is unaffordable for most people in severely affected countries. Dr. Piot urges governments in rich and poor countries alike to commit more money to buy these medicines so the drugs reach those people in greatest need.