The World Health Organization's 17th World AIDS Day (search) Wednesday culminates a year-long campaign devoted to preventing women and girls from becoming infected and to promoting equal access to treatment.

But as health workers and governments around the globe gathered for conferences and programs, the medical progress that has been achieved in treating the disease remains overshadowed by the pandemic devastating Africa and spreading through Asia, controversy over public health initiatives, and social attitudes that continue to stigmatize AIDS victims and prevent many from seeking help.

Females now make up half of the nearly 40 million people worldwide currently infected with the deadly virus. Around the world, AIDS has killed more than 20 million people since 1981, including 2.9 million last year. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 70 percent of the population is infected with the virus. Nearly 1 million Americans are estimated to have HIV, and 40,000 more are infected each year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

While Africa remains the hardest hit by the virus, the new AIDS front is Asia. According to a U.N. report, the steepest increases in the number of women living with HIV (search), the virus that causes AIDS, over the past two years have been in East Asia — up 56 percent — and Central Asia and Eastern Europe, both up 48 percent.

On Monday, health workers and government officials convened in Islamabad, Pakistan to discuss the impact of AIDS on women and girls in the region. Health experts say the social and cultural customs in that region of the world can make women particularly vulnerable.

In China, where AIDS is also on the rise, President Hu Jintao shook hands with AIDS patients in a Beijing hospital, encouraging them to stick with their medical treatment. It was the second year in a row that top Chinese leaders shook hands and had face-to-face exchanges with patients on AIDS Day.

In a report issued Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said that criticism of condoms and restrictions on access to them are undercutting the fight against HIV/AIDS in countries ranging from Nigeria to Peru to the United States.

The New York-based human rights organization described condoms as the single most effective weapon against sexually transmitted HIV, but said they are subjected to government-backed constraints in numerous countries.

In some places, Human Rights Watch said, police confiscate condoms from AIDS outreach workers and use them as evidence of illegal prostitution or sodomy.

"Governments should be promoting condom use, not treating condoms like contraband," said Jonathan Cohen, a Human Rights Watch researcher. "The clear result of restricting access to condoms will be more lives lost to AIDS."

The U.S. government, although the leading donor to HIV/AIDS-fighting initiatives, was criticized for its support of "abstinence until marriage" HIV-prevention programs that often depict condoms as unreliable and withhold any practical information about their use.

"The Bush Administration is spending millions of dollars on abstinence-only programs that mislead people at risk of HIV/AIDS about the effectiveness of condoms," said Rebecca Schleifer, another Human Rights Watch researcher. "Exporting these programs to countries facing even more serious epidemics will only make the situation worse."...

Tony Jewell, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the U.S. government does fund condom distribution through some of its HIV/AIDS programs, but he defended the philosophy behind other programs which espouse the abstinence-only approach.

"It's a scientific fact that you will not get a sexually transmitted disease if you do not have sex," he said.

Human Rights Watch also criticized religious leaders — including officials at the Vatican — who have publicly linked condoms with promiscuity.

Worldwide, Human Rights Watch said, less than half the people at risk of sexual transmission of HIV had access to condoms, and even fewer had access to basic HIV/AIDS education.

Among the countries examined in the report:

—India. Human Rights Watch said some police officers treat supplying condoms to men who have sex with other men as an act abetting sodomy, which is outlawed in India. It said police also have used condom possession as justification for harassing prostitutes.

—Nigeria. The report said advertisements for condoms have been banned in some cases on grounds that they encourage adultery and premarital sex.

—Peru. Human Rights Watch said the government has decreased funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and increased barriers to condom access.

In the United States, New Jersey health officials convened a two-day conference in Atlantic City to look at preventing the disease in women. While New Jersey has experienced an overall drop in AIDS cases over the past decade, 35 percent of the states' AIDS victims are women—the highest in the nation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.