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Africa AIDS conference ends with broad consensus

by Gumisai Mutume

Addis Ababa, 7 Dec 2000 (IPS) -- African leaders have committed  themselves to intensifying the battle against AIDS and have called for  international support at the conclusion of the Africa Development Forum (ADF) here Thursday.

The African consensus on leadership to fight HIV/AIDS, which emerged from the meet, calls for a substantial reduction in the price of anti-retroviral drugs and for the acceleration of the enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative to assist in financing HIV/AIDS programmes.

The document was adopted at the 3-7 December meeting of African leaders.

A civil society declaration, which is an addendum to the consensus document, calls upon African governments and international organisations to insist on price reductions to make drugs affordable for poor Africans and for World Trade Organisation rules to be amended to allow African nations to produce generic drugs.

The meeting sponsored by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) sought to build a common position among African governments, international development partners, civil society groups and community based organisations on how to intensify the fight against HIV/AIDS.

The continent currently spends $300 million annually on HIV/AIDS. This pales in comparison to the estimated $3 billion required annually to treat at least half of the 25 million people infected on the continent and establish prevention programmes.

No specific proposals to raise this amount emerged from the conference, although the consensus document notes that the first source of funding for HIV/AIDS programmes should be domestic and that countries should commit more of their national budgets to HIV/AIDS campaigns.

Responding to questions that the document did not provide enough concrete proposals or specific measures on how the continent will raise money to arrest the spread of the disease, Economic Commission for Africa executive secretary KY Amoako said the document was only a framework.

“The document contains pointers ... the direction in which Africa should be going,” Amoako told the press conference. He said the document was only the beginning of a larger process and would feed into other regional and sub-regional initiatives.

Countries will hold national workshops to determine how the consensus and the plan of action will be put into practice at the country level.  Concrete national plans that emerge from these consultations will then be taken to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Special Summit on HIV/AIDS in Nigeria next April.

For instance, a meeting of the continent’s finance and planning ministers in Algeria in April will specify strategies for incorporating poverty reduction and debt relief with HIV/AIDS programmes.

During the conference, the World Bank marketed its new $500 million loan project to finance anti-HIV/AIDS programmes that proved unpopular among civil society groups and youth delegates.

The finance ministers are also expected to adopt specific common positions on international financing of AIDS strategies in Africa.

While it is not a binding document, as it does not have a monitoring mechanism at the country level, the ECA has been tasked with ensuring that the consensus and plan of action are kept high on government agendas, in view of the many resolutions African countries have so far adopted on HIV/AIDS.

It is only recently that African leaders have begun to acknowledge the presence of HIV/AIDS in their countries and take action. ADF 2000, held under the theme ‘AIDS: The greatest leadership challenge’, sought to capitalise on this and urge leaders to speak out openly against the scourge.

“We want to hear the big noise of awareness campaigns everywhere, in every country, in every continent,” UN secretary-general Kofi Annan told the conference. “We want to make every man, woman and child understand that facing up to AIDS is a point of honour, not a source of shame.”

Treatment of those infected emerged as a strong human rights issue among civil society groups at the conference. They stressed that Africa should not write off 25 million of its people who are already infected with HIV/AIDS and are currently unable to access drugs.

“We do not accept that the necessary drugs are too expensive, as evidence shows that they can be produced for a small fraction of the current market prices,” noted the civil society declaration.

The civil society declaration, which is an addendum to the consensus document, calls upon African governments and international organisations to insist on price reductions to make drugs affordable for poor Africans and for World Trade Organisation rules to be amended to allow the continent to produce generic drugs.

“We call for expanding the list of essential drugs to include anti-retrovirals and drugs for opportunistic infections,” notes the NGO declaration. “We denounce the means used to maintain pharmaceutical companies’ excessive profits at the expense of human lives.”

The consensus document also called on African governments to switch off their war machines, noting that peace is an essential pre-requisite for effective programmes against HIV/AIDS. It wants governments and sub-regional organisations to take decisive steps to create and maintain peace and security.

“We cannot contemplate failure in the fight against this terrible scourge,” said OAU secretary-general Salim Ahmed Salim. “There is no reason why we should not succeed in what has become a war for the future of Africa.”

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