UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations' top HIV/AIDS official acknowledged at a conference Thursday that it was no longer realistic to hope that the world will meet its goal of halting and reversing the spread of the pandemic by 2015.
Peter Piot (search), head of the U.N. campaign to combat AIDS, told reporters that it was still "possible" to reach that goal and some countries would get control of the disease.
But HIV/AIDS is spreading much faster than efforts to rein it in crucial regions including Eastern Europe and Central America, and stopping the spread isn't realistic, he said.
"What we are faced with is multiple epidemics and that the epidemic is still expanding," Piot said. "We are actually still moving into the globalization of the AIDS epidemic."
The remarks were a rare case of a U.N. official admitting that at least one of the Millennium Development Goals (search) — a host of aspirations world leaders laid out in 2000 to be achieved by 2015 — probably won't be met. World leaders frequently say that other goals on development, tackling poverty, and ensuring universal elementary education will be tough to meet.
The daylong conference is being held to review progress toward meeting targets set at a U.N. General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS in 2001 to start tackling the crisis.
A few hours before Piot spoke, Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) warned the conference that the AIDS epidemic is accelerating on every continent. He noted that just 12 percent of the people who need antiretroviral therapies in poorer countries were getting them.
Saying the fight against HIV/AIDS may be "the great challenge of our age," Annan called for more money and more vocal leadership. Efforts so far have not "matched the epidemic in scale," he said.
Piot said the global fight against AIDS is seeing its first signs of success in Africa, which has been hardest hit. But he said the $8 billion being spent this year to combat the disease must be doubled to between $14 billion to $16 billion annually.
Piot urged leaders to treat the fight against AIDS with the same seriousness they handle security issues. In a speech at the conference, he sought a "quantum leap in a commitment" because of huge funding gaps that remain.
Delegates at the conference were urged not only to provide more funding, but consistent funding so that people with the disease know that their treatment won't be cut off for lack of cash.
Piot said there is now a $7-$8 billion shortfall in fighting AIDS.
On a positive note, Piot cited declines in the number of new HIV infections among young people in the capitals of Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Malawi, Zambia and Uganda, where people are more educated and prevention programs have started.
Delegates also discussed research into AIDS vaccines and microbicides, which are gels or creams that women could use to kill the HIV virus during sexual intercourse.
Researchers and government ministers called for more focus on developing these new technologies to prevent the spread of HIV.
"We need more preventive techniques, and we need to work together, rich and poor, public and private," said Kapil Sibal, India's minister of science and technology.
He added the battle against AIDS would be doomed unless women are empowered with tools such as microbicides.
Gareth Thomas, a British delegate and parliamentarian, said it was realistic to think that a microbicide could be developed in five or six years, while a vaccine was 20 years away at best.
Thomas said he hoped the conference would be a way to "rebuild the political momentum" to get more money for aid and debt relief to poor countries grappling with AIDS.
General Assembly President Jean Ping called on participants — including 36 ministers — to make recommendations to a summit of world leaders in September that Annan has called which will focus on implementing the U.N. development goals.
Annan said halting the AIDS epidemic is a prerequisite for meeting all the other goals.
"Only if we meet this challenge can we succeed in our efforts to build a humane, healthy and equitable world," he said.