- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2006

NEW YORK — A three-day international conference on AIDS concluded last night with an agreement to increase access to medicines and to boost campaigns to prevent the deadly disease.

First lady Laura Bush began yesterday’s discussions; she was joined by about a dozen world leaders and at least three dozen health or foreign ministers.

They came to the United Nations this week, 25 years after the first human AIDS cases were confirmed, to take stock of public policy and funding to combat the disease. About 25 million have already died of the virus.

“No country can ignore this crisis,” Mrs. Bush said in her first General Assembly address.

“Fighting AIDS is an urgent calling — because every life, in every land, has value and dignity,” she said.

AIDS has always been a tough issue for world leaders to agree on, involving vast amounts of money, evolving science and social stigmas that compromise people’s willingness to be tested and treated.

A conference declaration that was to be issued last night includes language on prevention and treatment for “vulnerable” populations, which usually refers to people with multiple sex partners and drug users.

It stresses access to condoms, sterile needles, harm-reduction programs, expanded counseling and early treatment of sexually transmitted infections.

The document also recognizes “local circumstances, ethics and cultural values” and encourages “responsible sexual behavior, including abstinence and fidelity.”

“Yesterday I was not so confident that we would have a document that is as strong as it is now,” said Dr. Peter Piot, the executive director of UNAIDS, the U.N. agency that deals with the disease and hosted the conference.

Praising its inclusive language, he said, “it goes far beyond what I thought was possible.”

Delegates agreed to focus on sexual education and other prevention strategies for young people, to ensure access to antenatal care and treatment for mothers and newborns, to eliminate discrimination against vulnerable groups and women and to strengthen national health programs and anti-HIV/AIDS activities.

The draft document also reaffirms the intention “to promote access to medicines for all,” including production of expensive anti-retrovirals and other drugs for people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Delegates set a goal of spending up to $23 billion a year by 2010 to support AIDS-fighting measures.

The Bush administration four years ago announced a five-year, $15 billion program to combat AIDS and malaria, the two biggest killers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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