Aids and the battles ahead

Ahead of World Aids Day, Caroline Anning meets politicians and activists at a rally in London's Parl

Every 13 seconds someone in Africa dies from Aids and despite advances in the battle against the disease the World Health Organisation's target of achieving universal access to treatment and prevention by 2010 has fallen badly behind.

With less than three years remaining more than 70% of people do not have access to the HIV drugs they need, while in excess of 80% have no access to basic prevention services.

The international HIV/Aids charity AVERT warns if this situation does not change dramatically the impact of AIDS on African societies will worsen in the next ten years.

The consequences of the disease are already widely felt, not only in the health sector but also in education, industry, agriculture, transport and the wider economy.

According to Steve Cockburn, Campaign Coordinator for the Stop AIDS campaign, Britain has a “comparably good” record of donation and it is the world’s second largest bilateral donor to HIV/Aids projects.

At the September conference of the Global Fund the UK provided an eight year commitment to pay £1 billion towards the Fund's work in tackling AIDS, TB and malaria - over and above the 3 year commitment that was requested.

International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander described the commitment as “unprecedented” and vowed to “challenge other donors to contribute their fair share” at a Stop Aids event in Parliament Square yesterday.

But, critics say, Britain's donating record is exemplary only in comparison to the dire records of other wealthy countries.

Cockburn argues that though the long-term commitment is a positive step, the government only promised about half of what it should have done.

It is a similar story for the UK's three-year Aids strategy, which is up for renewal early next year. £1.5 billion was delivered during the last 3 years, but Cockburn's organisation wants to see the government deliver £2.5 billion as part of its new strategy in line with UN recommendations.

“I think the government is committed to achieving universal access,” says Cockburn “but I have doubts about whether they're committed to providing the means necessary to achieve it.” Lynne Featherstone, Liberal Democrat spokeswoman on international development, accused the government of dropping its overall aid budget by 0.1% - a decrease of £1.4 billion.

Although she acknowledges that the money will be made up at a later date to keep the government on track with its spending commitments, Featherstone argues that “it isn't good enough to say it's delayed. In the meantime people are dying.”

She has recently returned from a trip to South Africa where she says 25% of the population are now infected with HIV/AIDS. The government there has come under fire for its slow response to the crisis.

Now a new drive to deal with the crisis comes in no small part from companies who fear losing large swathes of their workforce to the disease, and so have put treatment and prevention programs of their own in place.

“Businesses have good systems and expertise,” says Featherstone. “No one organisation can deal with Aids on their own but if businesses, NGO's and governments work together then a lot can be achieved.”

And indeed, there is a lot that needs to be achieved. Anti-retroviral medicines are still prohibitively expensive and Cockburn stresses that long-term investment is needed to recruit, train and retain health workers in developing countries. Few African nations have proper networks in place for educating people about the dangers of HIV/AIDS, or for delivering the necessary treatment.

The world has been slow in reacting to the Aids pandemic in Africa, choosing to shut its eyes and ears to the problem until it developed into a major humanitarian crisis. There are lessons to be learnt from this.

Featherstone believes the importance of World Aids Day lies not least in sending a message to countries like China and Brazil where the disease is on the rise that they need to take note of Africa's bleak example.

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