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A Times Editorial

Unite to fight AIDS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2001


Delegates to the U.N. Special Session on HIV/AIDS, which ended Wednesday, faced the difficult task of designing a global strategy to fight the war against AIDS. The session, the first of its kind, is an encouraging sign that the world is finally waking up to the AIDS nightmare. But while the United Nations has shown a united front against AIDS, it is divided on how to combat the disease.

Delegates to the U.N. Special Session on HIV/AIDS, which ended Wednesday, faced the difficult task of designing a global strategy to fight the war against AIDS. The session, the first of its kind, is an encouraging sign that the world is finally waking up to the AIDS nightmare. But while the United Nations has shown a united front against AIDS, it is divided on how to combat the disease.

On the insistence of some Muslim nations, the final draft declaration approved on Wednesday does not name specific groups that the disease has struck, including homosexuals, women and prostitutes. Nations were split on how to allocate a proposed $9-billion global fund to fight AIDS. And, in perhaps the strangest squabble, almost a dozen assembly members opposed the participation of a gay advocacy group, which was eventually allowed to join the discussions. Can a group with such shaky unity wage a battle against AIDS that is anything more than symbolic?

The good news is that prevention was the assembly's overriding priority. In its Declaration of Committment, the United Nations outlined an aggressive course of action centering on education, preventive care and a "challenge (to) gender stereotypes and attitudes, and gender inequalities in relation to HIV/AIDS, encouraging the active involvement of men and boys." This statement, while technically unenforceable, targets the oppressive attitudes that have manifested themselves in the skyrocketing infection rates across Africa, particularly among young women. The countries with the most severe AIDS rates are those whose customs and behaviors allow for its spread.

In Mozambique, where the infection rate among young girls and women is twice that of boys their age, women are married off to older, more sexually experienced men who could be exposing their child brides to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. These women can't choose abstinence, and social custom and tradition tells them they cannot question their husbands' choice to not wear a condom. Once they become pregnant, few of these women have access to drugs that would prevent HIV from moving from mother to child. And the U.N. conferees don't consider their plight worth specifically mentioning in their official declaration against the disease.

Prevention clearly is more than just encouraging safe sex. It will take a change in attitudes and behaviors to slow the disease's spread. Men and boys must change their behavior toward girls and women, and social leaders must face the fact that AIDS spreads through sex and intravenous drug use.

Treatment should not be ignored. The anti-retrovirals, popularly known as the AIDS cocktail, could prolong the lives of millions. Providing drugs that prevent diseases such as tuberculosis, responsible for 50 percent of AIDS-related deaths in Africa, could cut death rates. But treatment is more expensive and less cost-effective than prevention.

The outcome of this special session should be more than a symbolic commitment. The international community should create a war chest for fighting AIDS. It also should produce a united front against the disease. In his opening statement Monday, Botswana President Festus Mogae asked for global unity and compassion in fighting the disease. "What is really required of us," he said, "is a social revolution, a willingness to commit, to share and to prioritize -- a social vaccine against harmful practices and the violation of human rights."

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