’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.


Over 7K-strong, migrant caravan pushes on; still far from US

The caravan’s numbers have continued to grow. (Reuters)
Updated 23 October 2018
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Over 7K-strong, migrant caravan pushes on; still far from US

  • The caravan is at least 1,140 miles (1,830 kilometers) from the nearest border crossing
  • No one is capable of organizing this many people: aid worker

TAPACHULA, Mexico: Thousands of Central American migrants resumed an arduous trek toward the US border Monday, with many bristling at suggestions there could be terrorists among them and saying the caravan is being used for political ends by US President Donald Trump.
The caravan’s numbers have continued to grow as they walk and hitch rides through hot and humid weather, and the United Nations estimated that it currently comprises some 7,200 people, “many of whom intend to continue the march north.”
However, they were still at least 1,140 miles (1,830 kilometers) from the nearest border crossing — McAllen, Texas — and the length of their journey could more than double if they go to Tijuana-San Diego, the destination of another caravan earlier this year. That one shrank significantly as it moved through Mexico, and only a tiny fraction — about 200 of the 1,200 in the group — reached the California border.
The same could well happen this time around as some turn back, splinter off on their own or decide to take their chances on asylum in Mexico — as 1,128 have done so far, according to the country’s Interior Department.
While such caravans have occurred semi-regularly over the years, this one has become a particularly hot topic ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm elections in the US, and an immigrant rights activist traveling with the group accused Trump of using it to stir up his Republican base.
“It is a shame that a president so powerful uses this caravan for political ends,” said Irineo Mujica of the group Pueblo Sin Fronteras — People Without Borders — which works to provide humanitarian aid to migrants.
Some have questioned the timing so close to the vote and whether some political force was behind it, though by all appearances it began as a group of about 160 who decided to band together in Honduras for protection and snowballed as they moved north.
“No one is capable of organizing this many people,” Mujica said, adding that there are only two forces driving them: “hunger and death.”
Earlier in the day Trump renewed threats against Central American governments and blasted Democrats via Twitter for what he called “pathetic” immigration laws.
In another tweet, he blamed Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador for not stopping people from leaving their countries. “We will now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to them,” he wrote.
A team of AP journalists traveling with the caravan for more than a week has spoken with Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans, but has not met any Middle Easterners, who Trump suggested were “mixed in” with the Central American migrants.
It was clear, though, that more migrants were continuing to join the caravan.
Ana Luisa Espana, a laundry worker from Chiquimula, Guatemala, joined the caravan as she saw it pass through her country.
Even though the goal is to reach the US border, she said: “We only want to work and if a job turns up in Mexico, I would do it. We would do anything, except bad things.”
Denis Omar Contreras, a Honduran-born caravan leader also with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, said accusations that the caravan is harboring terrorists should stop.
“There isn’t a single terrorist here,” Contreras said. “We are all people from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. And as far as I know there are no terrorists in these four countries, at least beyond the corrupt governments.”
The migrants, many of them with blistered and bandaged feet, left the southern city of Tapachula in the early afternoon Monday under a burning sun bound for Huixtla, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away.
In interviews along the journey, migrants have said they are fleeing widespread violence, poverty and corruption. The caravan is unlike previous mass migrations for its unprecedented large numbers and because it largely sprang up spontaneously through word of mouth.
Carlos Leonidas Garcia Urbina, a 28-year-old from Tocoa, Honduras, said he was cutting the grass in his father’s yard when he heard about the caravan, dropped the shears on the ground and ran to join with just 500 lempiras ($20) in his pocket.
“We are going to the promised land,” Garcia said, motioning to his fellow travelers.
Motorists in pickups and other vehicles have been offering the migrants rides, often in overloaded truck beds, and a male migrant fell from the back of one Monday and died.
“It is the responsibility of the driver, but it is very dangerous, and there you have the consequences,” Mexican federal police officer Miguel Angel Dominguez said, pointing to a puddle of blood around the man’s head.
Police started stopping crowded trucks and forcing people to get off.
Caravan leaders have not defined the precise route or decided where on the US border they want to arrive, but in recent years most Central American migrants traveling on their own have opted for the most direct route, which takes them to Reynosa, across from McAllen.
Late Sunday, authorities in Guatemala said another group of about 1,000 migrants had entered that country from Honduras.
Red Cross official Ulizes Garcia said some injured people refused to be taken to clinics or hospitals.
“We have had people who have ankle or shoulder injuries, from falls during the trip, and even though we have offered to take them somewhere where they can get better care, they have refused, because they fear they’ll be detained and deported,” Garcia said.
Roberto Lorenzana, a spokesman for El Salvador’s presidency, said his government hopes tensions over the caravan decrease after the US elections.
“We have confidence in the maturity of United States authorities to continue strengthening a positive relationship with our country,” Lorenzana said.
Asked if he thinks Trump will follow through on his threat to cut aid to El Salvador, he said, “I don’t know. Of course the president has a lot of power, but they will have to explain it there to the different government structures.”
Lorenzana added that El Salvador has significantly reduced violence, a key driver of migration, and that the flow of Salvadoran migrants has dropped 60 percent in two years.
UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said large numbers of migrants were still arriving in Mexico and were “likely to remain in the country for an extended period.”
The first waves of migrants began arriving in the southern town of Huixtla after an exhausting eight-hour trek and quickly staked out grassy spots in the town square to bed down overnight.
Marlon Anibal Castellanos, a 27-year-old former bus driver from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, roped a bit of plastic tarp to a tree to shelter his wife, 6-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.
Castellanos said the family walked for six hours until they could go no farther. They saw the dead man who fell from the truck, and the danger of being on the road was troublesome, out in the middle of the countryside far from an ambulance or medical care should the kids to pass out in the heat.
“It’s hard to travel with children, Castellanos said.”