Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned governments on Tuesday against using the economic crisis as an excuse to cut funding for fighting AIDS at a time when there are nearly five new HIV infections for every two people put on treatment. He called for "bold action" not only to increase funding but also to break down social barriers to achieve the goal set by world leaders in 2006 of universal access to comprehensive HIV prevention services, treatment, care and support by 2010.
But the U.N. chief and other speakers at a General Assembly meeting reviewing progress and challenges in the battle against AIDS indicated that it will be exceedingly difficult _ if not impossible _ to reach the goal.
On the plus side, Ban said 110 of the 192 U.N. member states have established national targets to achieve universal access, many are making headway, and some have reached them.
A survey of 14 African countries found a decrease in the percentage of pregnant women living with HIV, he said, and over a five-year period, the provision of antiretroviral drugs increased, contributing to the first decline in the number of annual AIDS deaths since the epidemic was first recognized nearly 30 years ago. Financing for HIV programs in low- and middle-income countries also continued to increase, reaching $13.7 billion in 2008, Ban said.
"Yet there are still nearly five new infections for every two people put on treatment," the secretary-general said. General Assembly President Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann cited other shortcomings: 29 million people who need HIV treatment still lack medication, roughly two out of three HIV-positive pregnant women don't receive services to prevent mother-to-child transmission, and an estimated 370,000 children under the age of 15 became infected with HIV in 2007 and are less likely than adults to receive treatment.
For countries to reach the AIDS targets they set, he said, an investment of $25 billion will be needed in 2010 _ just $11.3 billion more than the funds available today.
"Even as we see signs of cutbacks in AIDS funding in many countries, we must remind governments and the international community that the world has the resources to mount the kind of AIDS response to which we have committed. If we allow cuts now, we will face increased costs and great human suffering in the future," d'Escoto said.
Ban warned that "the economic crisis should not be an excuse to abandon commitments _ it should be an impetus to make the right investments that will yield benefits for generations to come." To achieve universal access, Ban and d'Escoto said other obstacles must be overcome.
"The fight against AIDS also requires us to attack diseases of the human spirit _ prejudice, discrimination, stigma," Ban said. D'Escoto pointed to laws that hinder access to life-saving services for the groups most at risk of HIV _ homosexual men, drug users and sex workers.
Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, said 80 countries have homophobic laws which should be expunged.
Swaziland's U.N. Ambassador Joel Musa Nhleko, speaking on behalf of African nations, said HIV/AIDS posed "the greatest global threat in the world today." He said Africa has been hardest hit: It is home to just over 10 percent of the world's population and nearly two-thirds of those living with HIV/AIDS worldwide. The Czech Republic's U.N. Ambassador Martin Palous, speaking on behalf of the European Union, said the 27-nation bloc remains "gravely concerned" at the lack of effective prevention programs.