|Published on: Dec 1, 2002|
|JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (Reuters) - Millions of people around the globe marked World AIDS Day Sunday with marches, prayers and hope amid grim statistics which show the epidemic outpacing all efforts to control it.
In China, officials instructed one million students to launch a new national AIDS awareness campaign while in Britain, health experts warned of a startling spike in new infections, and in South Africa -- the country worst hit by the disease -- activists held a mass funeral for babies.
"We pay tribute to all the children who have passed away in our care," said Jackie Schoeman of the Cotlands Baby Sanctuary, which held a ceremony Sunday in Johannesburg to inter the cremated ashes of some of the littlest victims.
Sunday's World AIDS Day activities highlight how dangerously the disease has spread since it was first detected among homosexual men in the United States in 1981.
Estimates released by the United Nations last week indicate that more than 40 million people worldwide are infected with HIV, the virus which causes AIDS, the vast majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa.
AIDS will have killed 3.1 million people by the end of this year, while five million more will have been infected, UNAIDS said in its report.
Ominously, the virus appears to be both spreading into regions which could transform the epidemic into a truly global disaster and developing resistance to AIDS-fighting drugs, complicating the quest for a vaccine.
Eastern Europe and Central Asia, with 1.2 million cases, now show the fastest growing epidemics, while officials fear that China and India are AIDS time bombs.
Already an estimated one million Chinese are infected with HIV and the United Nations said the number could reach 10 million people -- equivalent to the entire population of Belgium -- by the end of this decade.
Worldwide, half of those infected are now women, the report says, meaning more babies could become infected through their mothers.
In New York City, where the gay community suffered the first major U.S. outbreak of AIDS more than 20 years ago, a World AIDS Day rally emphasized the disease's spread to every community.
"It's time to stop the denial, the partying and the pretension: AIDS kills gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight people," said Doneley Meris, who helps run mental health and social services for people living with HIV and AIDS.
And in San Francisco, where the gay community was also largely impacted by the disease, AIDS activists gathered to honor victims of the deadly illness with a ceremony at Golden Gate Park's National AIDS Memorial Grove.
"Anyone who has been touched by HIV or AIDS either through their own infection or through loved ones is invited to find remembrance and renewal through Sunday's commemoration," said Gary Pike, co-chair of the National Aids Memorial Grove.
To see what damage AIDS can do, one has only to look at southern Africa, where almost 30 million people are already infected with the disease.
Food output is falling, due to drought and the fact that agricultural workers are dying. Millions of children have been orphaned by the disease. Cemetery space is running out, average life expectancy is falling and billions of dollars are being chopped from the region's already fragile economies.
"There is no longer a distinction between those living with HIV/AIDS and those who are not," South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma said in the government's official World AIDS Day speech Sunday. "We are all living with the disease and are affected by it in many ways."
Many of Sunday's AIDS Day activities focused on three major areas of concern as the epidemic takes hold.
Treatment, now limited to expensive and complicated cocktails of anti-retroviral drugs, reaches only a tiny handful of AIDS sufferers who need it.
Fear and prejudice stalk victims of the disease, who are often ostracized from community support networks at their moment of greatest need. And awareness of the disease lags, despite massive efforts to educate people about how it is transmitted and how to avoid it.
China, long criticized for its sluggish response to the threat, launched a new round of awareness and prevention campaigns Sunday, taking on social taboos on talking about sexual activities in public.
At Beijing's Great Hall of the People, China's political center, the government launched a national campaign for students to spread out into the countryside to educate people about the disease and denounce discrimination against sufferers.
In a sign that developed countries may be in for another AIDS shock after seeing new cases decline in recent years, British officials said this week that the country was likely to have a 20 percent increase in new HIV cases this year -- a number twice that reported at the end of the 1990s.
"We are moving in the wrong direction and that is extremely worrying," said Dr Barry Evans, a health expert at the Public Health Laboratory Service which monitors infectious disease.
Officials point to some hopeful signs, including some successful AIDS awareness campaigns in Africa and moves by drug companies to slash the price of anti-AIDS drugs.
But treatment, even when it is available, is always going to be the most expensive option.
UNAIDS calculates that by 2007 the world will have to find about $15 billion a year to treat and combat AIDS in low and middle income countries -- but contributions to the new Global Fund designed to spearhead anti-AIDS work are lagging.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who heads an international anti-AIDS group with former South African President Nelson Mandela, said governments must push drug companies to provide medicines at discount prices and allow poor countries to buy generic drugs.
"Given that medicine can turn AIDS from a death sentence into a chronic illness and reduce mother-to-child transmission, our withholding of treatment will appear to future historians as medieval, like bloodletting," he wrote in The New York Times.
Mandela said the fear and stigma associated with the disease was almost as damaging as the epidemic itself.
"Many who suffer from HIV and AIDS are not killed by the virus, but by stigma," Mandela said at a World AIDS Day appearance in the city of Bloemfontein.
"You have to sympathize with them. It is your duty to be human. Do not stigmatize people with AIDS. Show them care, support and, above all, love," Mandela said.