UNITED NATIONS – In the first universal approach to battling a disease, the United Nations on Wednesday adopted an AIDS blueprint setting tough targets for reducing infection rates and protecting the rights of people with HIV/AIDS.
Under pressure from Islamic countries, Western nations were forced to back away from specifically naming the most vulnerable populations, including homosexuals and prostitutes. But experts said Wednesday that the heart of the document was in the details, not the language.
The 16-page Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS was adopted by consensus by the 189-nation General Assembly. It calls for accelerating efforts to find a cure for the pandemic that has taken more than 22 million lives.
"After today, we shall have a document setting out a clear battle plan for the war against HIV/AIDS, with clear goals and a clear timeline," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Wednesday. "It is a blueprint from which the whole of humanity can work in building a global response to a truly global challenge."
The three-day U.N. conference brought together over 3,000 health experts, scientists, lawmakers, aid workers and people living with the virus. Many shared heart-wrenching stories while their leaders made pleas for assistance from wealthier nations.
"My people are dying, they are dying before their time," the king of Swaziland, Mswati III, told members of the General Assembly on Wednesday.
First detected in homosexual men in the United States 20 years ago, the AIDS virus has exploded across the developing world, with more than 36 million people now infected. More than two-thirds of those afflicted are in Africa -- most of them women.
A last-minute compromise on the declaration came after Western nations reluctantly agreed to drop language specifically naming groups vulnerable to the disease -- including homosexuals and prostitutes -- because it was offensive to some Muslim nations.
Instead of mentioning "men who have sex with men," the new language refers to those who are at risk due to "sexual practice." Prostitutes are referred to as those vulnerable to infection due to "livelihood," and prisoners as those made vulnerable through "institutional location."
Egyptian diplomat Amr Rashdy, who led the push to change the language, said his country could live with the final document. "The outcome is fair and we accept it," he told The Associated Press.
But others argued that the original language would have better served those most in need of protection.
"For many, there is a reluctance to recognize groups affected by HIV/AIDS including men having sex with men; much of that reluctance is based on religion and on culture," said Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. "A failure to recognize it means the numbers of those infected can only grow."
Annan, who has made fighting AIDS a personal priority, acknowledged that tackling the issue had exposed "painful differences" among nations.
"Everyone has learned something here at this conference. In some countries maybe it will take a bit longer to recognize the reality and the need to respect the rights of every individual," Annan said.
Dr. Paul Delay, chief of the HIV/AIDS division at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said that despite the changes, "the targets have not been diluted."
Though not legally binding, the document calls on governments to create AIDS policies and programs to quickly reduce infection rates and protect those most at risk.
It makes specific references to cooperation needed between public and private sectors and says that human rights and fundamental freedoms are "essential to reduce vulnerability to HIV/AIDS."
It also recognizes the need for greater access to affordable drugs. Drug companies have lowered prices but African leaders at the summit said prices are still too high for most in the developing world.
Other targets set forth in the document include:
-- The development of national strategies and financing plans to combat HIV/AIDS by 2003.
-- A wide range of measures to prevent AIDS, including information and education, should be available by 2005 in all countries.
-- The number of infants infected with HIV should be reduced by 20 percent by 2005 and by 50 percent by 2010 by providing treatment to expectant HIV-positive mothers.
-- By 2003, countries should develop national programs to increase the availability of drugs to treat HIV infections by addressing issues such as pricing, and by 2005 they should make progress in implementing comprehensive health care programs.
Annan, who was nominated Wednesday by the Security Council for a second term as U.N. secretary-general, says $7-10 billion is needed annually to halt AIDS and reverse its effects.
The AIDS document "supports the establishment on an urgent basis of a global HIV/AIDS and health fund to finance an urgent and expanded response to the epidemic."
Annan found widespread support for the fund to be "particularly gratifying," and said he expected to see more contributions at next month's G-8 summit in Italy.
Both wealthy and impoverished nations announced contributions for AIDS totaling about $700 million.
The United States has already pledged $200 million and leaders of a key U.S. congressional committee agreed Tuesday to push for more than $1.3 billion to a global campaign against AIDS. It is expected to receive full committee approval Wednesday.