The plague known as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is caused by Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). According to WHO and UNAID sources, by 2010 it is estimated that deaths from HIV/AIDS will rival that of the bubonic plague which killed 93 million during the mediaeval and enlightenment periods. Health activists worldwide hope that Saturday’s observance of World AIDS Day will heighten awareness and focus efforts to combat the pandemic. Experts warned against complacency in fighting the disease and called on governments worldwide to address a multi-billion dollar funding gap.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon launched the 20th World AIDS Day at a midnight ceremony at St Bartholomew's Church in New York. The UN estimates that there is an $8 billion shortfall in AIDS funding worldwide. The G8’s plan to provide universal access to Anti Retroviral Drugs (ARVs) requires an additional $27 billion on top of the $15 billion already pledged. Ban called for leadership among all governments in fully understanding the epidemic, “so that resources go where they are most needed,” he said. "And I call for leadership at all levels to scale up towards universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010."
The highlight of Saturday’s events was a concert at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park organised by Nelson Mandela. 50,000 people watched local and international acts including Peter Gabriel and Annie Lennox. South Africa is one of the worst affected countries with 5.5 million of its 48 million population infected by HIV. The 89 year old Mandela told the crowd that the rate of infection is four times the rate of treatment. "Here in South Africa we are making every effort to reach into communities because we believe the answer is in our hands,” he said. “But what really matters are small acts of kindness ... such as protecting yourself.”
China also took the day seriously. The UN has warned that up to 50 million Chinese are at risk of contracting AIDS. President Hu Jintao appeared on the front page of major state-controlled newspapers shaking the hand of a female HIV carrier. He was inspecting HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment facilities in Beijing and enquiring how policy is being administered. Hu said AIDS prevention is an issue that affects the future of the country. “This is still a challenging task for China,” he said. “It needs effort from every member of society.”
But Africa remains the continent worst affected by AIDS. While the total number of those infected by the virus has decreased from 40 million in the late 1990s to 33 million today, two-thirds of these live in Africa. The World Health Organisation (WHO) had said that the number of people in Africa receiving antiretroviral (AVR) drugs has increased by 54 per cent from 2005 to 2006. WHO’s research also shows that the increased focus on prevention programmes adapted to reach those most at risk of infection is paying dividends. This means promoting increased use of condoms, delay of sexual activity, and fewer sexual partners.
Within Africa it is the south that suffers the most. The group of countries from Namibia to Mozambique has a HIV infection rate of 15 per cent for those in the 15 to 49 age group making it the hardest hit region in the world. The task of preventing AIDS is undermined by social and cultural practices, particularly traditional attitudes to male-relations and sexuality. Denial, lingering supernatural beliefs and fear of stigma also compounded the problem. South African president Thabo Mbeki disputed the link between AIDS and HIV until 2006. Only in the last 12 months have South African government reversed its denialist policies on AIDS promising increased availability of drugs and supporting groups battling the disease.
Botswana, with a third of its population infected, realised the scale of the issue in 2001 when President Festus Mogae called the epidemic “a crisis of the first proportion. In 2002 Botswana began a large-scale program of education and free treatment. By 2005 half the people in immediate need were receiving treatment. Dr Howard Moffat of Princess Marina Hospital in the capital Gaborone is now treating thousands of patients daily. "Botswana has shown what can be done," Moffat said. "But it will need help for a considerable time to come."