SCIENCE IN THE NEWS #2083 - International AIDS Conference

By Cynthia KirkThis is Steve Ember.And this is Doug Johnson with SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, a VOA Special English program about recent developments in Science. Today, we tell about the thirteenth international conference about the disease AIDS.

Last month, more than twelve-thousand scientists, activists and politicians gathered in Durban, South Africa, to attend the international AIDS conference. Their goal was to increase awareness about the AIDS crisis in African countries and around the world.

Scientists presented the latest medical research on AIDS. They also debated the best way to fight the disease. AIDS activists called for ending barriers to treatment for people with the disease in developing countries.AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It is caused by the human immuno-deficiency virus, or HIV. This virus attacks the immune system, the body's defense against disease and infections. When the immune system fails, serious infections and cancers can invade the body. These infections can cause death.

HIV spreads to other people when an infected person has sex. It also spreads when an infected person injects drugs and then other people use the same needle. It can also be spread when a person receives blood that contains the virus.

Pregnant women infected with HIV can pass the virus to their babies before or during birth. They also can pass the virus to their babies through breast-feeding.More than thirty-four million people around the world are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. More than twenty-four-million of them are in African countries south of the Sahara desert.

Experts say AIDS has killed more people in Africa than all wars, floods, disease and hunger combined. Life expectancy rates have been reduced severely. Experts say the average age of death will be thirty years old in some countries in Africa. That is the lowest rate in one-hundred years. And the population in some African countries is expected to drop as AIDS continues to spread.Studies also say that almost thirty-million African children will have lost at least one parent to AIDS within ten years. Experts say the disease is seriously harming the social, educational and economic development in many African countries.

Experts say few people with HIV in developing countries tell others they are infected. That is because of the shame linked to AIDS and the lack of treatments. Few developing countries offer testing for the virus. And fewer still are able to get the powerful anti-AIDS drugs that have helped control the infection in richer countries.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))The conference in Durban was the first international AIDS conference held in a developing country. Organizers chose South Africa because of the severity of the crisis there.

South Africa has the largest number of infected people of any country in the world. More than four-million people there have HIV. Twenty-five percent of South Africans are expected to die within the next ten years. However, most South Africans do not know that they are infected.South African President Thabo Mbeki spoke during the opening of the AIDS conference. But many people walked out in protest. Thousands of other people marched in Durban to protest South Africa's failure to effectively deal with the disease.

Scientists and AIDS activists have criticized President Mbeki for questioning whether HIV causes AIDS. The dispute began earlier this year when Mr. Mbeki met with dissident researchers who say HIV may not cause AIDS. Most scientists agree that HIV does cause AIDS.

Scientists and AIDS activists say Mr. Mbeki's statements have caused confusion about the disease. They say his actions have harmed efforts to slow its spread in South Africa.Experts at the conference also discussed the AIDS crisis in Russia. And they expressed concern about the threat of the virus spreading in the world's most populated countries, China and India.

In addition, some nations with the best treatments report a higher incidence of AIDS infections. Researchers in the United States say as many as five-million Americans are at risk for HIV because of unsafe sexual activity and drug use. They say anti-AIDS drugs have lessened fears about the disease.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))The AIDS experts also announced some good news. They said prevention campaigns have slowed the rate of infections in Uganda and Senegal. Zambia has begun similar efforts. And Thailand was praised for its campaign to get people to use protection during sex to reduce the spread of the disease.

Scientists also discussed a new AIDS medicine called T-Twenty. It attacks the AIDS virus before it gets into blood cells. Scientists say it appears to greatly reduce the amount of HIV in patients who failed to improve when given other anti-AIDS medicines.

Researchers say they are also making progress toward developing an AIDS vaccine to prevent the disease. They announced that the first AIDS vaccine designed to fight the virus in Africa has been cleared for human testing. The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative said scientists will begin testing the safety of the vaccine in eighteen people in Britain later this year.Combinations of powerful AIDS medicines have greatly increased survival rates in industrial countries. These medicines including AZT, Three-T-C and protease inhibitors. But the drugs cost too much for most developing countries. The complex treatment for one person can cost more than twelve-thousand dollars a year.

During the conference in South Africa, activists said the cost of AIDS drugs is preventing poor people from getting life-saving medicine. The activists accused drug companies of choosing profits over human lives. They threatened to take legal action against drug companies and the South African government to force them to provide medicines to poor people.Several drug companies said they are taking steps to reduce the cost and to provide AIDS drugs for the poor. For example, a German drug company announced it will give anti-HIV medicine free to infected pregnant women in developing countries. The medicine prevents the virus from being passed to newborns. A United Nations agency and five drug companies are negotiating cuts in the price of AIDS drugs for Africa and other poor areas.But health officials at the AIDS conference said reducing prices is only part of the battle. They say poor countries need effective health care systems to be able to test people for HIV and to supervise the complex anti-AIDS treatments.

Health experts say at least three-thousand-million dollars a year is needed in the fight against AIDS. During the conference, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank promised millions of dollars to fight the war against AIDS. After the conference, the United States Agency for International Development gave five-million dollars to the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund to help children affected by AIDS.

And two weeks ago, the United States government's export finance agency offered to lend up to one-thousand-million dollars a year over the next five years to southern African countries. The countries would use the money to buy AIDS drugs from American companies.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))Former South African President Nelson Mandela spoke during the closing ceremonies of the Thirteenth International AIDS Conference. Mr. Mandela called for education programs to teach people how to prevent the spread of HIV during sex. He also called for aggressive treatment of infections that kill AIDS patients. Mr. Mandela said South Africans must rise above their differences and join in efforts to save their people. He rejected criticism that the government has not reacted urgently to the crisis.

And Mr. Mandela called for assistance to families and communities damaged by the disease. He said South Africa has a duty to give support and love to people with AIDS.

This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program was written by Cynthia Kirk. This is Steve Ember.And this is Doug Johnson. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

Voice of America Special English