- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 19, 2001

Western countries are at odds with several Muslim nations heading into a U.N. conference on AIDS next week over whether homosexuals, prostitutes and drug users should be singled out for special attention.
"There are two camps — most Western countries want to name specific groups such as homosexuals, sex workers and intravenous drug users as needing special concern," said E. Michael Southwick, deputy secretary of state for international organizations.
"Muslim traditional countries dont want to name these groups — they see it as condoning or making [their behavior] accepted," said Mr. Southwick, a leader of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. AIDS conference in New York.
"One Muslim delegate said at a preliminary meeting these acts are against the law of God."
A senior U.N. official involved in planning the June 25-26 conference said there was no intent by the Western countries to condone those practices.
"Its just a difference of opinion on how specific to be. Some say it should be up to each country to name its own vulnerable groups."
AIDS activists, meanwhile, plan to turn their anger on Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), for saying that Africans should not be given life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs because they are ill-equipped to administer the medicines on the strict schedules required.
Activists are expected to demonstrate in the streets of New York on Saturday by holding up clocks to ridicule Mr. Natsios, who was quoted saying Africans "dont know what Western time is."
"Mr. Natsios did not intend to offend anyone — just bring to light some of difficulties that hinder pharmaceutical treatment in rural areas throughout the developing world," said AID spokeswoman Kim Walz.
Further street demonstrations are expected during the two-day U.N. General Assembly special session early next week.
A draft declaration prepared for the New York meeting calls for U.N. member nations to "promote and protect the health of those most vulnerable to, and at greatest risk of HIV infection, such as children in especially difficult circumstances, men who have sex with men, sex workers and their clients, injecting drug users and their sexual partners."
However, "Certain countries with more traditional values like Iran will try to frame the issue more in terms of 'deviant practices, among them homosexuality or commercial sex workers," said a U.N. official in Geneva who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The draft also calls for women to have the right to control their own sexual activities, which could clash with countries with cultures that allow for arranged marriages.
The uproar over Mr. Natsios remark has diverted attention from a broader issue that has divided those seeking to fight the war on AIDS into two major camps.
On the one hand are the advocates of prevention, who say all efforts should focus on stopping the spread of the disease that has already killed 22 million and infected another 35 million and is rapidly spreading in Africa, India and China.
Mr. Natsios is among these who stress abstinence from sex, reducing the number of sexual partners and using condoms to reduce the spread of AIDS.
On the other hand are the advocates of treatment, who say that millions already infected cannot simply be allowed to die without being offered the anti-retroviral drugs developed in the West over the past decade.
When Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was in Africa in May, HIV-infected women he met at a Soweto clinic asked for the drugs, which can prolong life but not cure the illness. Mr. Powell refused to commit to offer the drugs but said, "We will do whatever we can."
Mrs. Walz said AID "is looking into establishing sites throughout the developing world to provide anti-retroviral drugs as part of treatment to adults. But Mr. Natsios just feels prevention is the way to save as many lives as possible."
Support for that view comes in Thailand, Uganda and Senegal, which dramatically reduced rates of infection by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, though public awareness campaigns mainly advocating safe sex, especially the use of condoms.
The new anti-retroviral drugs that fight AIDS were not a factor in cutting the HIV infection rates in those countries.
However, even the prevention approach is controversial. The Roman Catholic Church remains opposed to the use of condoms to prevent AIDS.
Some experts say the conflict Mr. Natsios ignited has forced the U.S. government to move toward distributing anti-retroviral drugs in Africa, where the pandemic is most deadly now.
The arguments over whether homosexuals and sex workers should be condemned or taught to protect themselves is bringing these groups under the widening net of the anti-AIDS struggle, said Dr. Nils Daulaire, head of the Global Health Council and former top health official at AID.
"Although its uncomfortable for national leaders to talk about these issues and about sex, it helps people think things through," he said. "In the end, protecting these groups protects us all."
While the U.N. session in New York is expected to develop some guidelines for the overall war against AIDS, a meeting of the Group of Eight industrial nations July 20 to 22 in Genoa, Italy, "will put cash on the table for the [$7 billion to $10 billion] Global Fund" that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for, Dr. Daulaire said.
"Now everyone is scrambling to put in place the architecture of the Global Fund."
The Bush administration has pledged $200 million toward the fund.

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