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UN AIDS event a sneak peek at 2006 conference

Press conference brings in celebrities of global health

Toronto got a little taste this week of what is to come in August 2006 when it hosts the International AIDS Conference. That is: high-powered save-the-world types talking about vaccines, global prevention strategies and fighting AIDS through poverty alleviation or, better yet, wealth production. The occasion was a press conference releasing the UN’s annual report on AIDS in time for media coverage surrounding World AIDS Day on Thu, Dec 1.

In attendance was Achmat Dangor, UNAIDS director for advocacy, communication and leadership, a 2004 Man Booker Prize-nominated novelist from South Africa, no less. There was Claire Mulanga Tshidibi of the International Labour Organization and founder of the Society For Women And AIDS In Africa, which has branches in 28 countries. There was Helene Gayle, cochair of the conference and director of the Bill And Melinda Gates Foundation’s HIV, TB and reproductive health program. She’s responsible for more than $1.2 billion in grants to prevention, treatment and research programs. (And, in a very US style, Gayle was unable to utter the word “condoms” without also stating that “abstinence” and “faithfulness” were methods of prevention.) These are the rock stars of the AIDS world.

And there was Aileen Carroll, Canada’s minister of international cooperation, who didn’t seem to know what to say when asked why Canada was having such a difficult time getting its infection rates down. (The number of reported new annual HIV infections in Canada has risen by 20 percent in the past five years; meanwhile, much poorer countries like Kenya, Zimbabwe and Haiti have managed to bring their adult infection rates down since 2003.)

“It’s appalling,” Carroll said of the infection rates in Canada. “Regardless of what governments are doing, the statistics continue to astound.”

Fighting AIDS is about prevention, treatment and care. Treatment and care seem to be about technology and money. (Did you know that $8 billion US will be spent worldwide on AIDS this year?) Heading into the 2006 conference, prevention continues to be more elusive.