BANGKOK, Thailand – The United States on Wednesday urged its detractors to end their bickering over condoms and drug patents (search) and join hands with Washington in a global partnership to fight their common enemy: AIDS (search).
Defending the Bush administration's policy from intense criticism, U.S. AIDS coordinator Randall Tobias said that the United States is spending nearly twice as much to fight global AIDS as the rest of the world's donor governments combined.
"At this point, perhaps the most critical mistake we can make is to allow this pandemic to divide us," Tobias said in a speech to the International AIDS Conference.
"We are striving toward the same goal a world free of HIV/AIDS. When 8,000 lives are lost to AIDS every day, division is a luxury we cannot afford," he said.
The United States has come under fire this week at the six-day conference over its AIDS policies, with activists, scientists and governments finding fault with nearly every Washington policy on HIV.
Its insistent on abstinence as a first line of defense against HIV has been ridiculed as unworkable by proponents of condoms. Tobias said while the United States is not against condoms, an abstinence campaign in Uganda shows that the contraceptives are not the only solution.
"Abstinence works, being faithful works, condoms work. Each has its place," he said.
"He's lying, people dying," hecklers chanted in near-constant heckling during the speech, which was initially delayed a few minutes when protesters massed near the stage.
President Bush has pledged $15 billion over five years to combat AIDS in Vietnam and 14 countries in Africa and the Caribbean.
"By its actions, the United States has challenged the rest of the world to take action. Please join with us in our deepened commitment to the global fight against HIV/AIDS," he said.
Critics say the money comes with strings attached — it goes to countries that support its abstinence-first policy. Also, the money currently can only buy brand-name drugs, usually American, shutting out cheaper generic medicines made by developing countries.
A U.N.-launched Global Fund (search) allows generic drugs, costing as little as $150 per person per year, while those approved under the U.S. plan typically cost $700, said Joia Mukherjee, medical director of Partners in Health, which helps treat poor people in Haiti.
"The last thing I want to worry about is which bottle this stuff is coming out of," she told The Associated Press.
She said U.S. administrators in Haiti quietly advise groups to use as much Global Fund money as they can on cheap drugs and, whenever possible, save U.S. money for health workers.
Tobias said Washington insists on name-brand drugs because their quality has tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which so far has endorsed only branded drugs. However, the agency has indicated it would accelerate any applications for generic drugs.
"America will not have one health standard for her own citizens and a lower standard of 'good enough' for those suffering elsewhere," he said.
An estimated 38 million people are infected with HIV, mostly in poor countries: 25 million in sub-Saharan Africa and 7.2 million in Asia. Only about 7 percent of the 6 million people in poor countries who need antiretroviral treatment are getting it.
Since the last AIDS conference in Barcelona in 2002, the number of people being treated for the disease has doubled in the developing world to 440,000. At the same time, 6 million people died from the virus and 10 million people became infected, WHO figures show.
Wednesday's agenda featured sessions addressing the growing infection rate among youth and women.
Experts say nearly half of all people living with HIV now are women, and their infection rates in many regions are climbing much faster than men's.
Raoul Fransen, infected during his youth in the Netherlands, told a plenary session that learning he was HIV positive made him think he would never again have sex again, for fear of infecting others.
"It took a while before I was ready to experience intimacy again," he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who joined the French delegation and other skeptics this week in criticizing the United States, urged Washington to show the same leadership in fighting AIDS as it has in fighting terrorism.
"We hear a lot about weapons of mass destruction, we hear a lot about terrorism. And we are worried about weapons of mass destruction because of the potential to kill thousands. Here we have an epidemic that is killing millions. What is the response?" Annan said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. in Bangkok.
French officials said the United States was trying to bully developing countries during negotiations on free trade agreements to give up rights granted by the World Trade Organization to produce generic drugs. U.S. officials reject this claim.