Ambitious plans to rush life-saving AIDS drugs to millions will be unveiled on Monday as experts warn that the worst is yet to come from a disease that has so far defeated all efforts to check its advance.
Marches, candlelight vigils and exhibitions marking World AIDS Day will serve reminders that deaths from the illness and new cases of HIV/AIDS reached new highs in 2003 and are set to rise further as the epidemic keeps a grip on Africa and scythes across eastern Europe and Central Asia.
A Cape Town concert, headlined by Beyonce Knowles and U2's Bono and broadcast across the Internet, helped launch the campaign to raise awareness of the threat on Saturday. African statesman Nelson Mandela urged world governments to act now.
Some hope may come from the U.N.'s World Health Organization (WHO), which will unveil a global strategy to help 3 million people get anti-retroviral medicine by the end of 2005.
The WHO, whose advice guides policymakers around the world, is expected to outline ways to expand access to "combination therapy," which improves the effectiveness of treatment.
The WHO said in a statement that its strategy will call for "extraordinary and unconventional efforts to get anti-retroviral treatment to the people who will die without it."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan thinks many political leaders still simply do not care enough to fight the disease, which has killed 28 million people since it was first reported among homosexual men in the United States in 1981.
"I am not winning the war because I don't think the leaders of the world are engaged enough," Annan said last week.
"I feel angry, I feel distressed, I feel helpless ... to live in a world where we have the means ... to be able to help all these patients, what is lacking is the political will."
Expanding "combination therapy" should save lives, experts say.
"Giving such treatment is urgent, otherwise people will die," Morten Rostrup, president of the Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) medical charity, told Reuters.
"We hope the WHO presents a feasible model to scale up treatment for all patients who need it and that it will be available at a reasonable price."
The WHO initiative follows a high-profile policy U-turn by South Africa, which in November finally buckled under huge domestic and international pressure to roll out anti-retroviral drugs, despite President Thabo Mbeki's previous backing for scientists who have questioned the link between AIDS and HIV.
Access to anti-retrovirals around the world is minimal in the poverty-stricken countries worst affected by the virus; of the 4.2 million people who need them in sub-Saharan Africa, only an estimated 50,000 get supplies, health officials say.
Experts say the WHO will also promote the provision of emergency response teams to guide the purchase and financing of anti-retrovirals for poor countries where treatment is sparse.
In other events U.S. Secretary of Health Tommy Thompson will lead U.S. business executives on a tour of AIDS projects in Zambia. Also on the trip is Randall Tobias, recently appointed to oversee $15 billion in funding over five years proposed by U.S. President George W. Bush for assistance against HIV/AIDS.
The United Nations says the epidemic, fueled by drug abuse and unprotected sex, is spreading in India, China, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, Russia, Ukraine, Estonia and Latvia.
Sub-Saharan Africa remains the worst affected region with about 3.2 million new infections and 2.3 million deaths in 2003. Southern Africa, with less than 2 percent of the global population, is home to about 30 percent of people with HIV/AIDS.
(China Daily December 1, 2003)