Pubdate: Fri, 16 Jul 2004 Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON) Author: Michael Smith, with files from The Associated Press


Governments urged to take action

BANGKOK - Injection drug use, ignored and swept under the carpet when it's not the object of heavy-handed repression, is fuelling the HIV/AIDS epidemic in many parts of the world.

And governments are paying no attention, setting themselves up for a dramatic increase in HIV infections, AIDS activists said yesterday at the 15th International AIDS Conference.

People who inject drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, are "the engine that is driving the epidemic in these regions," said Gregg Gonsalves of Gay Men's Health Crisis, an advocacy group in New York City.

"The question is when is it going to be noticed and recognized by governments around the world," he said during a press briefing before a special session on the issue.

The World Health Organization estimates there are 13 million drug users around the world, 10 million of them in "developing or transition countries," said Andrew Ball of WHO's HIV/AIDS program.

Worldwide, there is "one transmission (of HIV) every minute by needle sharing," said Konstantin Lezhentsev of the Open Society Institute, the advocacy organization founded by billionaire George Soros.

And because they are seen as second-class citizens, drug users often cannot get anti-HIV drugs and, in some cases, even primary health care for other illnesses, Mr. Lezhentsev said.

He blamed "myths" about the inability of drug users to follow a strict medical regimen, as well as a general perception they are of no value to society.

Indeed, even at this meeting, a Thai activist and former drug user was left to speak to a nearly empty hall at the end of the opening ceremonies. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had already left, as had most of the other speakers and audience, when Paisan Suwannawong took the stage.

Democracy icon Nelson Mandela called on governments, businesses and citizens to donate generously to the war on AIDS, saying "no amount is too small," as the United Nations blamed the epidemic for declining life expectancy in parts of Africa.

Mr. Mandela's fervent appeal followed announcements by the European Union and the Bill Gates Foundation of contributions totalling $102 million U.S. to a UN-sponsored global fund to fight the epidemic.

The former South African president also called for increased efforts to control TB, the leading killer of people with HIV.