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U.N. chief Annan urges world leaders to act against AIDS

U.N. chief Annan urges world leaders to act against AIDS

The International AIDS Conference opened Sunday in Bangkok, Thailand, with United Nations chief Kofi Annan challenging world leaders to do more to combat the raging global epidemic and warning that women are increasingly the unwitting victims of the disease. Three years after world leaders pledged at the United Nations to defeat the epidemic, there has been progress on many fronts, Annan said in a speech to nearly 20,000 policy makers, scientists, activists, and celebrities. "And yet we are not doing nearly well enough," he said, in the first appearance by a U.N. secretary-general at an International AIDS Conference. "We need leaders everywhere to demonstrate that speaking up about AIDS is a point of pride, not a source of shame. There must be no more sticking heads in the sand; no more hiding behind a veil of apathy," he said. A Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS report issued before the conference said 38 million people worldwide are infected with HIV, 25 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa and 7.6 million in Asia. A record 5 million people were infected last year. The theme of the 15th conference is getting more of the newly available antiretroviral drug combinations to the millions in the developing world who need them--turning AIDS from a death sentence to a chronic disease. In a speech to open the conference, Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra urged governments around the world to provide antiretroviral drugs to the needy, and he announced a donation of $5 million over five years to a U.N.-initiated fund to fight AIDS. Also on the agenda at the conference was how best to prevent infections--with discussions on whether to focus primarily on condoms, as host country Thailand has done, or on abstinence, as favored by President Bush. "Bush tells lies, condoms save lives," read a placard held by one of an estimated 1,000 activists, many of them HIV-positive, who rallied outside the venue to demand increased access to drugs, condoms, and clean needles. Thailand doled out condoms at tollbooths, hotels, and the conference--the venue even had an exhibit of dresses made of condoms--symbols of the country's success in securing a sevenfold decrease in HIV infections since 1991, largely by promoting condom-only sex among prostitutes. (AP)

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