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Health News

'We can win this fight': Obama steps up the battle against Aids

President pledges an extra $50m in the US as he sets a new goal in combating the disease

President Barack Obama yesterday vowed to boost access to life-saving HIV/Aids drugs, as he announced a renewed American commitment to ending a disease that has killed 30million people around the world.

"We can beat this disease, we can win this fight," Mr Obama declared during a World Aids Day event in Washington. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also participated, while a giant red ribbon – the global symbol of solidarity with Aids sufferers – hung from the portico of the White House. In his speech, Mr Obama promised American support to speed the supply of anti-retroviral drugs to six million people in countries hardest hit by the virus, above all in sub-Saharan Africa, over the next two years. He also announced plans to spend an extra $50m on HIV treatment in the US.

"The rate of new infections may be going down elsewhere, but it's not going down here in America," he said. "Communities in this country are being devastated still by this disease." Infections among young, black, gay men had risen nearly 50 per cent in three years. "We need to do more to show them that their lives matter," Mr Obama added.

The latest plans from the US, which build on President Bush's $15bn global Aids relief programme of 2003, seek to allay concerns that the world economy will slow the flow of resources to tackle a pandemic estimated to affect almost 34 million people.

The latest plan calls for 1.5 million HIV-positive pregnant women to gain access to anti-retroviral drugs to prevent them from passing the virus to their children. It also provides for the distribution of more than a billion condoms in the developing world by 2013, and funding for almost five million voluntary medical male circumcisions in eastern and southern Africa by the end of 2013. Research shows that circumcisions reduce the risk of female-to-male HIV transmission by more than 60 per cent.

In a rare display of bipartisan comity in politically divided Washington, Mr Obama went out of his way to laud his Republican predecessor, praising Mr Bush for his leadership in the fight to eradicate Aids and saying the 2003 programme would be one of his greatest legacies. The programme, the president declared, had been more ambitious than even leading advocates thought was possible at the time, and had "saved thousands and thousands and thousands of lives, spurred international action, and laid the foundation for a comprehensive global plan that will impact the lives of millions".

The latest figures suggest that the rate of increase in the number of Aids sufferers worldwide, which doubled in a decade early on, has now slowed almost to a standstill. But Mr Obama's announcement yesterday is unlikely to increase the overall anti-Aids budget. Officials said the more ambitious targets would be funded by savings from greater efficiency, and by cuts in treatment costs.

In his speech, Mr Obama urged wealthy nations "including China and other major economies now able to step up as major donors", to fulfil existing pledges to help to finance a global fund to fight the disease. He asked countries that had not yet made a commitment to do so now.