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Free condoms, UN's determination on AIDS prevention
Updated: 2004-07-08 14:59

Frequents in United Nations premises may not be surprised, but for the new comers to the UN convention center in Addis Ababa, venue of the ongoing African Union's annual summit, free condoms in nearly all of the center's rest rooms can be an anecdote to gossip about when they go home.

"We think it's a good policy," Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) country coordinator Bjorn Lundquist said, noting that they didn't put condoms in all the rest rooms because there wasn't a "big flow of people before the AU summit."

Indeed, in a continent where the yearly adult consumption of condoms, one of the most effective ways to prevent AIDS, stands at a meager figure of three, free condoms may be a good way to combat the pandemic.

In the UNAIDS' 2004 report of the global AIDS epidemic launched Wednesday on the margins of the AU summit, the agency says number of people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, continued to grow, from 35 million in 2001 to 38 million in 2003.

The situation in sub-Saharan Africa, which is home to nearly 70 percent of all people living with HIV, is even worse, with the affected growing from 23.8 million in 2001 to 25 million in 2003.

The lateness of government action, which hinders awareness development in the continent's people, may be a major cause, as UNAIDS Country and Regional Director Michel Sidibe pointed out, prevention of AIDS on the African continent hasn't been able to " come up with powerful message."

According to a participant of the summit from South Africa, where the disease hits hard, promotions of prevention and the use of condom are largely ignored by the poor, the ones most vulnerable to the disease.

In Kenya, things are almost the same. A security guard in Kenyan capital Nairobi, who resides in east Africa's biggest shanty town Kibera, said earlier last month that he never used a condom, and shook his head resolutely on the notion of safe sex.

Yet unsafe sex remains one of the major means for the pandemic to claim thousands of lives every year in Africa. Coupled with low status of women on the continent, early marriage and political instability, there is a rapid feminization trend among the young Africans.

According to UNAIDS' report, about 75 percent of the affected with HIV in the 15 to 25 years group in Africa are female, the prevalence of AIDS on the continent is not likely to fall any time soon.

However, the tide is on its way to change. In 1996, when the UNAIDS was created, spending on AIDS in low and middle income countries totaled only US$300 million. But today, there is nearly US$5 billion available to fight the epidemic in the developing world, with countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia making major progress in controlling the disease.

"It's not a disease of orders" any more, UNAIDS' Sidibe said, noting that coordinated government action and empowered communities are the sure ways to fight AIDS, and despite the 15- fold increase in funds to combat the disease, funding is still less than half of what is needed.

UNAIDS is calling for greater efforts to be put into prevention and access to treatment.

"We cannot afford to lose our teacher, nurses and farmers," Sidibe said, noting that the agency expects to make sure the next generation is free of the epidemic, calling for more commitment from political leaders and more resources to prolong life of the infected and fight the stigma and discrimination of the affected.

The United Nations is on the right track to distribute free condoms in its premises. One UN uniform-clad security personal guarding the convention center was especially keen to make sure people who chat with him don't engage in unsafe sex.

"Beware of the beautiful ladies, they are not healthy, use some protection," he said, introducing night-life of the Ethiopian capital.

As hundreds of people crowded into the three-floored convention center Wednesday, free condoms in distribution were a sold-out. By the afternoon, nearly all are gone. One reporter said he got four packs for his hired driver, and the driver "accepted happily."

Not all low-income people reject safe sex, at least when it is free. Maybe the UNAIDS should start distribute free condoms elsewhere, not just in a place where most of the people who can get in and can afford the protection.

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