Somber religious services, boisterous demonstrations and warnings call for more to be done in treating, preventing HIV/AIDS
BERLIN World Aids Day was marked around the globe by somber religious services, boisterous demonstrations and warnings that far more needs to be done to treat and prevent the disease in order to avert millions of additional deaths.
Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko conceded his country was losing ground in the race to curb one of Europe’s fastest growing epidemics, saying 100,000 Ukrainians have been officially registered as HIV-positive. Every day, 40 citizens of the former Soviet nation are diagnosed with HIV, and eight die from AIDS, Yushchenko said.
“Such figures are shocking,” Yushchenko said in a published address timed to coincide with World AIDS Day. “We can’t be indifferent to them.”
Yushchenko’s statement comes as UNICEF officials warn of a public health catastrophe in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where 270,000 people are infected, some 90 percent of them through intravenous drug use.
“Eastern Europe stands at the threshold of an AIDS epidemic of catastrophic proportions, which can only be stopped through a broad-based educational campaign,” said Dietrich Garlichs, German head of the United Nations Children’s Fund.
In Moscow, dozens of believers lit candles and joined in a prayer service in the small Church of St. Catherine the Great Martyr, part of the U.S.-based Orthodox Church in America.
Women lit thin yellow candles tied with the red ribbons that symbolize the fight against HIV and AIDS, while priests led the chanting of prayers.
The Russian Health Ministry said Russia hopes to provide equal access to anti-retroviral drug therapy for all the HIV-infected.
Chief epidemiologist Gennady Onishchenko said Nov. 30 that the number of officially registered cases of HIV in the country had reached 362,000. But international agencies and some Russian experts say the true number is closer to 1 million.
Activists allege that Russia, where those infected with HIV are often stigmatized, has dragged its feet in battling the disease. Some scientists say the nation faces a devastating epidemic in the next decade if nothing is done, accelerating a rapid decline in Russia’s population.
In London, the day was marked by services in Westminster Cathedral and a concert by the London Gay Mens’ Chorus at St. Pancras Church.
In Copenhagen, artist Jens Galschioet put up an eight-foot sculpture of a crucified pregnant teenager outside Copenhagen’s Lutheran cathedral. He called it a protest against the idea that “God allows nothing but chastity and unprotected sex.” City authorities gave the artist permission to erect the statue, called “In the Name of God,” outside the cathedral.
Anders Gadegaard, the cathedral’s dean, appeared to welcome the message. “It’s a good supplement to the crucifix we have inside the church,” he said.
President Bill Clinton warned in an interview with the BBC that India, which has the largest population of HIV infected people in the world, has become the new epicenter of the global AIDS pandemic. The challenge of controlling the epidemic in India, with 5.7 million infected, is “breathtaking,” he said, but it can be achieved. “This is not rocket science,” Clinton told the BBC. “We know what to do.”
The Clinton Foundation announced Nov. 30 it had struck a deal with two Indian companies to supply 19 antiretroviral drugs for HIV-infected children at steeply discounted prices. Only one in 10 children who need treatment is getting it, Clinton said in a statement. The cheap drugs will be available to 100,000 children in 62 developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin American and the Caribbean by next year.
But the need for additional treatment and prevention programs, health officials say, is still staggering. The global pandemic has killed 25 million people since the first case was reported in 1981, with 40 million currently infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Nations across Asia marked the day with events both serious and lighthearted. In Indonesia, demonstrators marched through the streets of the capital with their faces wrapped in white sheets, some carrying signs that said “No more stigma!” and “Stop HIV/AIDS.”
In Thailand, AIDS activists created the world’s “Longest Condom Chain,” intended to raise awareness about the disease. Organizers planned to arrange 25,000 condoms side-by-side on a ribbon placed on the ground, stretching through Bangkok’s Lumpini Park.
Thailand is considered a leader in the global fight against AIDS, and has made significant gains in reducing the number of new infections through the aggressive promotion of condom use by men who patronize prostitutes.
In China, schoolgirls decorated classrooms with red ribbons, the international symbol for AIDS awareness. Chinese taxi drivers handed out angel-shaped cards promoting steps to prevent HIV infections and discrimination against those already infected. The Chinese Health Ministry said last week that the number of reported HIV/AIDS cases rose by almost 30 percent in the first 10 months of this year, from 144,089 to 183,733. Intravenous drug use was the biggest source of infection. Health experts estimate that the actual number of cases is four or five times higher than the reported figure.
In Papua New Guinea, the governor general and the health minister took HIV/AIDS blood tests in front of hundreds of people to encourage voluntary testing. Governor General Paulias Matane and Minister Peter Barter attended a rally at the Tabari open-air craft market in Port Moresby and gave blood samples as hundreds of spectators applauded. Papua New Guinea has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS among Pacific countries, with around 2 percent of the population estimated to be HIV-positive.
Clinton visited the country on Dec. 3 to launch a new voluntary testing and counseling program. He was scheduled to visit Vietnam this week, where his Clinton Foundation runs AIDS treatment programs for children.
In Hanoi on Dec. 1, about 450 people participated in an event that brought together about 20 people infected with HIV and hundreds of those not infected, with the aim of reducing the stigma attached to the virus. The group pitched a dozen large tents, where people ate lunch, talked and sang together. A “Condom Fashion Show” featured outfits stitched together with condoms.
“We really need something like this so that people will understand more about the epidemic,” said Nguyen Minh Phuong, 37, who is infected with HIV. “It allows us to do something useful and help prevent the disease from spreading.”
In Indian-controlled Kashmir, meanwhile, public health authorities have found an unexpected ally in their battle against HIV and AIDS in the deeply conservative region.
The Jammu-Kashmir state AIDS prevention and control agency has enlisted hundreds of Islamic clerics to carry the message of safe sexual practices to Muslim believers, officials said.
Top Muslim cleric Mufti Nazir Ahmed usually preaches sermons at a mosque in Kashmir that urge Muslims to avoid promiscuity and homosexuality widely believed to be among the major reasons for the spread of AIDS. “Wherever I deliver a sermon, I talk about AIDS. Methods to prevent AIDS corresponds exactly with the teachings of Islam,” Ahmed said on Dec. 1. “If one follows the Islamic way, by no means can one contract AIDS.”
At least 37 people have died of AIDS in Jammu-Kashmir over the last decade while another 931 people have tested positive for HIV or AIDS, he said.
Associated Press Writer Ben Stocking contributed to this report.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, October 20, 2006.