Helping women help themselves – shift of HIV struggle

Researchers, activists and major funders have agreed to a shift in the fight against AIDS to focus on prevention and especially helping women protect themselves.

With big pharmaceutical companies making their HIV drugs available cheaply to developing nations and with generic drugs available, speakers at the 16th International Conference o­n AIDS agreed the focus should move to preventing new infections.

“Prevention of HIV had slipped off the agenda and now is being pushed by unexpected quarters,” Dr. Peter Piot, head of the United Nations AIDS agency UNAIDS, said in an interview.

That includes activists who had previously focused o­n getting lifesaving drugs to infected people, he said.

Opening the conference in Toronto o­n Sunday, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to AIDS programs, said he would be seeking good prevention programs that focused o­n women.

These will include the development of microbicides -- gels or creams that can prevent sexual transmission of the fatal and incurable virus.

Just over half, or 17.3 million, of the 34 million adults infected with the AIDS virus are women, according to the World Health Organization.

With more than 4 million new infections a year and 2.8 million deaths, the need for prevention is clear. But some political and religious leaders are standing in the way of effective programs, several experts said.

“The problem with prevention for many is that you cannot avoid dealing with sex and drugs,'' Piot said.

Barbara Lee, a California Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, said the administration of President George W. Bush may have to be forced into changing its policies that stress abstinence as the best prevention method.

“What we see is a very ideologically driven administration, both domestically and internationally, trying to put their moral values ... o­n communities and countries,” Lee told a news conference.

She is sponsoring legislation that would eliminate U.S. requirements that 33 percent of all funds spent o­n prevention go to promoting abstinence-only-until-marriage approaches.

“We know that abstinence o­nly before marriage doesn't work,” said Stephen Lewis, the U.N. ambassador to Africa for AIDS.

The White House defended its policies. ``Very little of what PEPFAR is doing in prevention in any focus country is in abstinence o­nly,'' said Warren Buckingham country coordinator for the (U.S.) President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in Kenya. “We all long for the day when there is an effective microbicide, but we are not there yet.”

Until then counseling programs to help women speak up for themselves and to encourage men to respect women more might be more useful, Buckingham said.