Health Leaders Gear For World AIDS Day

A woman from the AIDS help organization of Thuringia holds a AIDS loop in Erfurt, Germany, Monday, Dec. 1, 2008. The worldwide UNICEF World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, 2008, promotes the prevention of the disease.
South Africa has more people infected with the AIDS virus than any other country, but it also has a new government determined to end the crisis, the head of the U.N. AIDS program said Monday.

"If I am not in South Africa for World AIDS Day, I don't know where I should be," UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe told The Associated Press on the eve of the day when the world takes stock of efforts to fight the epidemic and remembers those who have died.

South Africa, a nation of about 50 million, has an estimated 5.7 million people infected with HIV - more than any other country in the world. Nearly 1,000 South Africans die every day of AIDS-related diseases.

Former President Thabo Mbeki questioned the link between HIV and AIDS, and his health minister distrusted drugs developed to keep AIDS patients alive, instead promoting beets and garlic as AIDS treatments.

A Harvard study has concluded that more than 300,000 premature deaths in South Africa could have been prevented, had officials acted sooner to provide drug treatments to AIDS patients and to prevent pregnant women with HIV from passing the virus to their children.

Mbeki's own party forced him to step down late last year after almost a decade as president, and President Jacob Zuma took over following April elections. Zuma and his health minister have said Mbeki's AIDS policies were wrong and set a target to get 80 percent of those who need AIDS drugs on them by 2011.

Zuma is scheduled to give a major speech on AIDS on Tuesday. Sidibe said he hoped the president would address the social and financial issues related to fighting AIDS.

"People who are privileged, who have resources ... they are fortunate. They will not die, probably, from HIV," Sidibe said. "But you have millions of other people ... who are not having access to health systems and services."

Zuma "is committed to making change happen," Sidibe said. He credited the country's health department with moving quickly to distribute more AIDS drugs and for working with the U.N to improve ways of using scarce resources.

Increasing the number of people on AIDS drugs will require more money at a time when the global recession has many worried funding for health will decrease. Sidibe pleaded with donors: "Please, make your adjustments with a human face."

But he said more could be done with existing resources, such as taking steps to improve management. He also said the costs of treating AIDS in the long run would be reduced is new infections were reduced.

"We need prevention, prevention, prevention," he said.