Western European Countries Discuss Fight Against AIDS in Eastern Europe, Central Asia at Conference
Eastern Europe and Central Asia are experiencing the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the world, and the European Union should take action to help combat the disease, UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot said at the opening of a two-day ministerial conference in Dublin, Ireland, the AP/Miami Herald reports (Wielaard, AP/Miami Herald, 2/23). UNAIDS, along with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Bank, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and other groups, are participating in the conference, titled "Breaking the Barriers -- Partnership to Fight HIV/AIDS in Europe and Central Asia," which is being hosted by the European Union Presidency (UNAIDS/WHO/UNICEF release, 2/23). The Presidency of the Council of the European Union rotates between the member states every six months. Ireland currently holds the presidency through June 30 (European Union Presidency Web site, 2/23). Representatives from 55 countries are attending the conference, which is the first international forum aimed at discussing the effect of HIV/AIDS on Europe and Central Asia, according to the AP/Miami Herald. Conference participants are expected to draft a declaration calling for governments to increase HIV/AIDS awareness and funding to fight the disease, according to the AP/Herald.
New E.U. Members
Piot said that since 1998 -- when 30,000 people were known to be living with HIV in Eastern Europe and Central Asia -- the number of registered HIV cases has risen to 1.5 million. Although the number of AIDS-related deaths in Western Europe has dropped from 20,000 in 1996 to 3,500 last year, the region registered between 30,000 and 40,000 new HIV cases last year, which Piot called an "unacceptable occurrence for one of the richest regions in the world" (AP/Miami Herald, 2/23). Ten countries -- Cyprus, Malta, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Hungary and Slovenia -- are set to become new members of the European Union in May, and experts at the conference said that the union should help provide financial and technical assistance to help combat HIV/AIDS in the new member nations, according to BBC News (BBC News, 2/23). The United Nations Development Programme last week released a report that said one out of every 100 adults in a city in Eastern Europe or the Commonwealth of Independent states is HIV-positive. The report also said that along with Russia, Estonia and Ukraine are facing growth rates in new HIV infections that are among the highest in the world. Ukraine has recorded 68,000 HIV cases, but officials estimate that the number could be 500,000, and Estonia has registered 3,621 HIV-positive people. However, Estonian Social Welfare Ministry spokesperson Katrin Pargmae said that unofficial estimates are almost double the reported figure (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 2/18).
Piot said, "Given that the E.U. will form the biggest trading bloc in the world, covering more than 500 million people, it is in the E.U.'s best interest to prevent the AIDS epidemic from crippling Europe's social and economic development." He added that European ministers should "urgently scale up and roll out effective HIV prevention and treatment programs." U.N. Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe Lars Kallings said, "The enlarged E.U. and its neighbors could rapidly be faced with a more vigorous phase of the epidemic unless political leaders transform their verbal commitments into concrete action on the ground" (BBC News, 2/23). Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern called on E.U. members to make HIV/AIDS part of the union's development and health policies, the AP/Herald reports. He said, "Developed countries are good at recommending to our African colleagues what they should do. We must not delude ourselves that HIV/AIDS is an exclusively African problem" (AP/Miami Herald, 2/23). WHO Director-General Jong-Wook Lee said, "Europe cannot divide over the issue of AIDS treatment, and only provide treatment in the richer countries. Treatment should be a right for all" (UNAIDS/WHO/UNICEF release, 2/23).
Financial Times Opinion Piece
Although the European Union has offered "significant" funding to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa, the union has "paid scant attention" to the Eastern European and Central Asian epidemics, Piot and Ahern write in a Financial Times opinion piece. If HIV/AIDS is "left unchecked" in those regions, the epidemic could "cripple social and economic development" with "devastating consequences," including reduced life expectancy and higher health costs, Piot and Ahern write. According to Piot and Ahern, "[S]ignificant change will happen only through partnerships between civil society, people living with HIV/AIDS, youth, the private sector and governments." Piot and Ahern call for an "integrated approach to prevention, testing, treatment and education," with an emphasis on "sustained prevention campaigns targeting those must vulnerable to HIV -- young people." The European Union should "take swift action to ensure that AIDS does not spread within its borders," Piot and Ahern say, concluding, "If we take action now we can secure the future of the E.U.; if we fail to act, we may undermine the future of millions of citizens for generations" (Ahern/Piot, Financial Times, 2/22).