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Economic crisis threatens AIDS fight: expert

by Staff Writers
Bangkok (AFP) April 20, 2009
The global financial crisis could wipe out years of progress in fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS and treating patients, a leading authority on the disease warned Monday.

Michel Kazatchkine, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said he was "very concerned" that international donors would be unable to meet their pledges.

"The financial crisis obviously is affecting the rich countries and therefore I am very concerned about their ability to keep up development aid commitments," Kazatchkine told AFP in an interview at a conference in Bangkok.

"In global health it is a slow slope to make progress, it takes you time to actually see the gains. If the efforts are not sustained we will lose a lot of gains that we have made in the last six to eight years."

His warning came less than a month after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged donors to maintain their contributions to the Global Fund despite the economic downturn, saying it has saved millions of lives.

It is expected to have a budget deficit of four billion dollars for the 2008-10 period.

The fund was created in 2002 from a suggestion by then UN chief Kofi Annan to channel money into local projects in poor nations. It is financed by donor nations, corporations, private foundations and a few individuals.

Kazatchkine warned that a shortfall in funding was a "threat" to programmes to slow the spread of HIV and to treat millions of affected people in developing countries.

"This is why, paradoxically, it is during a financial crisis that you need even more funding," he said.

In a keynote speech Monday to the International Harm Reduction Association -- an anti-substance abuse body -- Kazatchkine also called for the use of illicit drugs to be decriminalised to help halt the spread of AIDS.

"I am talking about decriminalisation of drug users. I am not talking about decriminalisation of drug trafficking, there should not be any misunderstanding," he later told AFP on the sidelines of the conference.

"Drug users have been looked towards as criminals, they are arrested, harassed, they are imprisoned, they have no access to services, they are not respected in the very basic human rights perspective."

The average life expectancy for HIV/AIDS patients who are intravenous drug users was between 10 to 15 years lower than that of patients who did not inject, he said.

"That really shows what I think is the scandalous lack of attention and lack of public health attention to drug users," he said.

Only about two to three percent of the available resources for HIV/AIDS were spent on harm reduction, principally among injecting drug users, the association's executive director Gerry Stimson said at the conference.

"It is clearly not enough," he said.

"If we are serious about reducing HIV infection amongst injecting drug users then we are going to need between two and three billion (US dollars) this year," Stimson added.

Last week the Global Fund launched an international partnership to make effective anti-malarial drugs cheaper for Africans to buy at their local pharmacies.

Reversing the incidence of HIV-AIDS and malaria is among the Millennium Development Goals set out by the United Nations in 2000, which aim to halve extreme poverty by 2015.

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Bird flu found in Tibet: state media
Beijing (AFP) April 19, 2009
Chinese officials had confirmed the outbreak of a deadly strain of bird flu among poultry in the Tibetan capital Lhasa, state media reported Sunday, quoting the ministry of agriculture.

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