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Morality and the fight against AIDS

By Jackie Dent for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Amid the haunting stories of whole African communities struck by HIV/AIDS and gloomy statistics showing there are 39.5 million suffering from the disease globally, there have been some positive developments to usher in World AIDS Day.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton announced in India yesterday his foundation and UNITAID, an international drug purchase facility, have negotiated new agreements to lower the price of HIV/AIDS treatment for children living in developing countries.

Thailand made a surprise declaration that it was breaking the patent of an anti-retroviral drug to allow local and cheaper production of the HIV/AIDS drug Efavirenz.

While the move does not break international law, it has sparked protests from U.S. drug maker Merck & Co, the company which holds the patent on the drug.

While AIDS activists and health experts welcome these sorts of announcements as small breakthroughs in the economic debate about treating HIV/AIDS, few expect any breakthroughs on the moral front.

'Death by diplomacy'

When the United Nations made a final declaration on the treatment of HIV/AIDS in June this year -- declaring the disease a "global emergency" and emphasizing sexual abstinence, fidelity and condom use as the best ways to fight the epidemic -- around 70 international groups issued a joint statement deploring the document.

Activists described the document as "pathetically weak", "death by diplomacy" and "irresponsible". The Secretary-General Kofi Annan also joined the criticism by saying some countries were putting their "heads in the sand" over the issue.

There was anger for a number of reasons. Activists accused member states for failing to commit to hard targets. There was a concern that all references to low-cost drugs were weakened to support the interests of big drug companies.

But they were particularly critical that references to homosexuals, sex workers and injecting drug users -- groups most vulnerable to the disease -- were left out of the document.

There were also criticisms leveled at Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan and Gabon for blocking efforts to introduce sex education for young people, particularly girls.

"It is remarkable at this stage in the global epidemic that governments can not set the much needed targets nor can they name in the document the very people that are most vulnerable," Sisonke Msimang, of the African Civil Society, said in a statement at the time.

But six months on and moral issues -- particularly those related to abstinence, being faithful and condoms -- dominate the HIV/AIDS prevention agenda.

On the same day the Silver Ring Thing, a global and Christian-based campaign backing sexual abstinence until marriage, launched a funky campaign for South African teenagers with the twist that no-sex can help stop the spread of the virus, a leading Christian conservative in the U.S. questioned HIV/AIDS funding.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Peter L. Brandt, from Focus on the Family, called for funding cuts to HIV programs within the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, as he said faith groups were not getting enough money and little was given to abstinence messages.

'Conservative ideologies'

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch, a U.S. based group, issued a statement on Thursday saying programs to fight the disease "continue to be undermined by conservative ideologies and moralistic approaches."

"Governments are refusing to adopt evidenced-based programs that respect individual rights, and are instead promoting ideological campaigns that make people more vulnerable to infection," said Joe Amon, director of the HIV/AIDS program at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

Amon attacked countries who promoted "abstinence-only" approaches and inaccurate information about the effectiveness of condoms.

He said Uganda government was restricting availability of condoms to young people and promoting "virginity parades."

But the "moral cure" may soon face hurdles. With U.S. Congress now dominated by the Democrats, observers say it is likely that new legislation will be introduced to stop a condition that one-third of HIV/AIDS funding went to "abstinence only" schemes.

One church leader backing the proposed U.S. legislation is Reverend William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregation.

"Abstinence is a luxury for those who have a complete control over their bodies and wills," Rev. Sinkford told Inter Press Service News Agency.

"We know that 'Just Say No' didn't work all that well in the Garden of Eden and it isn't stopping the spread of HIV today."

Sri Lankan children take part in a World AIDS Day parade.




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