20 October 2009

Africa: Global Money Shortage Undermines Aids Fight

Paris — A shortage of money is threatening the AIDS battle at the very time when progress is being made against the epidemic and vaccine research is showing promise.

This is according to Professor Peter Piot, former head of the United Nations AIDS Programme (UNAIDS) who was addressing the AIDS vaccine conference which opened in Paris yesterday.

"I am very concerned that AIDS is slipping off the agenda in many countries because of the financial and economic crisis," said Piot. "Politicians have put mega-money into bailing out the banks and insurance companies but they also have a moral obligation to address the social sector."

Although four million people were now on antiretroviral treatment, an increase of 36 percent in just one year, "we can't treat our way out of this epidemic", said Piot.

"For every person who gets antiretroviral treatment, there are two to three others who get infected. We have to invest in prevention, including vaccine research. AIDS is a long-term problem and we need a long-term approach."

Professor Michel Kazatchkine, head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, echoed Piot's concern: "For the first time, the demand for funds [to the Global Fund] in 2009 have exceeded the funds we have available.

"We are going to have to delay Round 10 of funding from 2010 to 2011 to replenish our funds. If the demand cannot be met, we will lose the tremendous momentum we have achieved in the fight against disease."

Piot added that it was not clear whether US President Barack Obama would increase funds to the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Pepfar), started by George Bush. Pepfar funds many HIV programmes in Africa, including large antiretroviral treatment programmes in South Africa.

"The big test will come next year when the Senate votes on the next Pepfar budget. Obama has already said that the aid money should not just go into AIDS, but also into maternal and child health. I am not sure what is going to happen. I think the people already on [ARV] treatment are fairly well protected but will there be money to enrol more people on ARVs? Will there be money for HIV prevention?"

Meanwhile, conference chairperson Professor Jean-Francois Delfraissy hit at European governments and the European Commission for its lack of commitment to AIDS: "Why does Europe not see the importance of what is at stake? Why is Europe still absent from the great debates?"

Conference organisers were forced to close registration early after a record 1 100 scientists signed up for the conference.

Interest in AIDS vaccine research has surged after the results of a recent vaccine trial on 16,000 people in Thailand showed that the vaccine offered a modest 30 percent protection from HIV infection.

These results, as well as promising studies on antibodies that can neutralise HIV, will be dissected over the next three days.

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