’Dangerous complaceny’ feared as AIDS conference opens

In this file photo taken on July 15, 2004, a delegate looks at the "Antivir" anti-virus medicine products by Thai Phamarcy Authorithy on display during the 15th International AIDS Conference in Bangkok. (AFP)
Updated 23 July 2018
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’Dangerous complaceny’ feared as AIDS conference opens

  • The immune system-attacking HIV virus has infected nearly 80 million people since the early 1980s. More than 35 million have died
  • Last year’s 1.8 million new infections showed that “unless we did something completely drastic

AMSTERDAM: A world AIDS assembly opens in Amsterdam on Monday hoping to harness the star power of activists Elton John and Prince Harry to bolster the battle against an epidemic experts warn may yet spiral out of control.
Thousands of delegates — researchers, campaigners, activists and people living with the killer virus — will attend the 22nd International AIDS Conference amid warnings that “dangerous complacency” may cause an unstoppable resurgence.
In recent days, experts have alerted that new HIV infections, while down overall, have surged in some parts of the world as global attention has waned and funding has levelled off.
And they lamented that too sharp a focus on virus-suppressing treatment may have diverted attention from basic prevention programs such as condom distribution, with the result that the AIDS-causing virus is still spreading easily among vulnerable groups.
“The encouraging reductions in new HIV infections that occurred for about a decade has emboldened some to declare that we are within reach of ending AIDS,” Peter Piot, virus researcher and founder of the UNAIDS agency, said last week.
However, “there is absolutely no evidence to support this conclusion,” he insisted, and warned: “The language on ending AIDS has bred a dangerous complacency.”
A UNAIDS report warned of a long and difficult road ahead even as it reported a drop in new infections and AIDS deaths, and a record number of people on life-saving antiretroviral therapy (ART).
These hard-fought gains could be reversed, experts said Sunday as the finishing touches were put on the venue that will host some 15,000 delegates — also including celebrities Charlize Theron and Conchita — for five days.
An alarming rate of new infections coupled with an exploding young population in hard-hit countries could spell “a crisis of epic proportions,” said Mark Dybul, a veteran American AIDS researcher and diplomat.
“Bad things will happen if we don’t have more money,” he told a pre-conference, saying the world was “probably at the highest risk ever of losing control of this epidemic.”

Dybul and colleagues said donor and domestic funding has dropped significantly and would likely continue to decline, from about 20.6 billion euros ($24.1 billion) last year — most of it financed from the domestic budgets of nations with the heaviest AIDS burden.
According to UNAIDS, the funding gap is almost $7 billion per year.
Under Donald Trump, the US administration has proposed massive spending cuts, though these have so far failed to pass through Congress.
The United States is by far the biggest funder of the global AIDS response.
The immune system-attacking HIV virus has infected nearly 80 million people since the early 1980s. More than 35 million have died.
Today, data show the infection rate is rising in about 50 countries, and has more than doubled in eastern Europe and central Asia.
Experts regret that the focus on prevention has faded.
Last year’s 1.8 million new infections showed that “unless we did something completely drastic, we will not get anywhere near” the target of no more than 500,000 in 2020, said Nduku Kilonzo of Kenya’s National AIDS Control Council.
“We have a crisis and it is a prevention crisis,” she said.
At high risk are sex workers, gay men and people who inject drugs — many of whom are forced onto society’s fringes by repressive laws in their countries.
At the conference, NGOs will launch a liberalization campaign titled: “Just say no to the war on drugs,” a direct challenge to the 1980s Reagan administration’s “Just say no” message at the height of America’s “war on drugs.”
The program’s criminalization of drug use has compounded the stigma and discrimination experienced by users.


Vladimir Putin gets lavish welcome on visit to ally Serbia

Updated 17 January 2019
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Vladimir Putin gets lavish welcome on visit to ally Serbia

  • Church bells tolled, guns saluted and people waved Russian and Serbian flags on Putin’s route through the Serbian capital, Belgrade
  • Serbia has maintained close links with traditional Slavic ally Russia despite formally seeking European Union membership

BELGRADE, Serbia: Vladimir Putin received a hero’s welcome in ally Serbia on Thursday as the Russian president attempted to maintain political and economic influence in the Balkans, which is increasingly looking Westward.
Putin’s presidential plane was escorted over Serbian airspace by MiG-29 fighter jets he recently donated to Serbia as he arrived for the one-day visit. Church bells tolled, guns saluted and people waved Russian and Serbian flags on Putin’s route through the Serbian capital, Belgrade.
Serbia has maintained close links with traditional Slavic ally Russia despite formally seeking European Union membership. It has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia over Ukraine and has pledged to stay out of NATO.
Putin has recently stepped up efforts to restore Moscow’s influence in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe.
Putin and his host, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, praised the relationship between the two countries. Putin handed a top Russian honor to Vucic, who gave a puppy of a Serb dog breed to the Russian president.
Vucic thanked Russia for its support for Serbia’s claim over Kosovo, a former province that declared independence in 2008, and added that “however small,” Serbia has been a “reliable partner” to Russia.
Several bilateral agreements were signed, including on the supply of Russian gas and weapons to Serbia.
On the gas, Putin said Russian companies are ready to invest about $1.4 billion into a stretch of a pipeline that would go from Turkey via EU-member Bulgaria to Serbia and then on to Hungary, “but in the end, everything will depend on other countries, including the European Union.”
Putin’s visit come as thousands have been holding weekly demonstrations against Vucic because of what they see as his autocratic rule.
Tens of thousands of Vucic’s right-wing party supporters were bused into the capital on Thursday to gather in front of the St. Sava Orthodox church, which the two presidents visited. They were chanting slogans including “Serbia-Russia, we don’t need the European Union!“
Vucic’s critics say the gathering was staged to suggest that the Serbian leader has many more supporters than opponents, who have been marching the same route since December to demand free elections and media.
Several liberal Serbian rights groups issued a statement on Thursday protesting “glorification of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime.”
It said that Putin’s visit “indicates that the Serbian rulers are ready to sacrifice human rights and better living standards of citizens because of their servile attitude toward Putin’s regime.”
Russia’s interest in Serbia relates to its strategic position between East and West. Of Serbia’s eight neighbors, five are NATO members and two more are seeking membership; and four are in the EU and two more are working toward accession. Serbia remains Moscow’s only ally in the region.
Unlike NATO, Putin formally does not oppose Serbia’s EU path and analysts believe that this is because he wants a staunch ally — or perhaps a Trojan horse — within the 28-nation bloc.
Putin’s popularity in Serbia is mostly because the Kremlin is supporting Serbia in its rejection of Kosovo’s independence. In contrast, most Western countries have recognized Kosovo’s statehood.