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Fight AIDS as much as terrorism, Annan tells US
Updated: 2004-07-13 23:55

The United States must lead the fight against AIDS with the same commitment it shows in the battle against terrorism, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on Tuesday.

"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 their potential to kill thousands of people," Annan said in an interview with the BBC.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan (L) and his wife Nane talk to HIV-infected children at a hospital in Bangkok July 12, 2004. [Reuters]
"Here we have an epidemic that is killing millions. What is the response?" Annan said. "We really do need leadership. America has the natural leadership capacity because of its resources, because of its size."

Annan was speaking on the sidelines of an international AIDS conference in Bangkok where Washington's low-key presence, moral agenda and funding policies on AIDS have come under attack.

But a top U.S. government scientist defended President Bush's $15 billion plan to fight the AIDS epidemic that has killed 20 million people worldwide and infected 38 million.

"There is absolutely no diminished commitment in interacting internationally. Look at the president's programs. It's $15 billion," Dr. Tony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told reporters.

The conference -- the biggest gathering of scientists, activists, drug company bosses and AIDS sufferers -- has seen daily protests by activists shouting "Shame, Shame" against Bush and other rich country leaders accused of failing to support a U.N.-backed global AIDS fund.

In thinly veiled criticism on Tuesday, France said a U.S. drive for bilateral trade deals was undermining an international pact to provide cheap copycat AIDS drugs to the developing world.

French Development Minister Xavier Darcos said Washington must honor the spirit of a multilateral trade commitment made in 2001 giving poor countries access to cheap generic drugs.

"Making certain countries drop these measures in the framework of bilateral trade negotiations would be tantamount to blackmail," said Darcos, who was also jeered by activists.


The Bush plan pledges $15 billion over five years for care, prevention and treatment in 15 countries, mostly in Africa and the Caribbean, which account for 70 percent of all infections.

Critics say Washington's bilateral effort undermines the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria that faces a funding shortfall. The United States is already the biggest donor.

Global spending on AIDS last year was $4.7 billion, half of what will be needed by 2005 in developing countries, UNAIDS says.

Annan, who opened the conference on Sunday with a plea to world leaders to get their heads out of the sand, said he had spoken to Bush about funding the fight against AIDS.

"He's engaged and he was quite moved to hear people talk about it," Annan said. "But of course now we need a step forward to put resources to it."

The world puts substantial sums of money into fighting terrorism and containing weapons of mass destruction to protect people, he said.

"And here we know (about AIDS), it's not that we don't know, we read about it, we see it around us -- where's the international solidarity?"

The Bush plan has also drawn fire for linking funds to abstinence over condoms, and requiring drugs purchased with U.S. funds to be approved by the Federal Drug Administration.

Fauci said U.S. lawmakers would not have backed billions of dollars in funding for AIDS if the United States did not exert some control over how it was used.

"We have $15 billion and people are getting excited about which way it is going. As long as people get treated, cared for and prevention, that's what this is all about," he said.

The smaller U.S. delegation, which Washington says reflects a desire to cut costs, at this year's conference is seen partly as a sign of Washington's displeasure that it appears to have had little influence on the agenda.

Others believe the decision was triggered by events in Barcelona two years ago when U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson was shouted down by protesters demanding Washington commit more funds to the AIDS fight.

"The shouting down of Secretary Thompson in Barcelona has done a lot of harm," said conference co-chair Joep Lange, who chided activists for heckling a drug company boss on Tuesday.

"We have to be realistic. We want the U.S. back, but we have to work hard to get them back," he said.

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