Britain will fund Aids treatments for the developing world for the first time, instead of focusing exclusively on prevention, in response to the scale of the epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere.
Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, revealed the U-turn at the launch of the annual UNAids report yesterday, which showed deaths from the disease rose to a record three million last year. Mr Benn said: "We have made sure treatment is up there alongside prevention and caring for people with Aids. We have an opportunity now because of the dramatic fall in the price of Aids drugs."
Under Clare Short, Mr Benn's predecessor, who resigned over the Iraq war, the Department for International Development backed prevention of HIV but did not support treatment programmes. Lower prices for anti-retroviral drugs, and the recognition that whole regions of the world face economic ruin unless the death rate can be stemmed, led to the change of heart.
Mr Benn said yesterday: "Generations are being wiped out by the disease. Teachers are dying faster than they can be trained and people are being removed from working the land. If we are honest we should have done more sooner." Spending on Aids programmes had increased sevenfold since 1997, making Britain the second largest donor to the developing world. By 2005-06, spending in Africa would rise to £1bn a year, Mr Benn said. Next week he will give details of the Aids funding and call on the international community to scale up its efforts against the disease.
The move reflects growing international concern about the potential of the disease to destroy the young, economically active populations of developing nations. Yesterday's UN report revealed that spending on Aids programmes rose 50 per cent last year to £4.7bn, indicating that governments were treating the disease with a new seriousness.
Peter Piot, executive director of UNAids, referred to the talks on Aids between Tony Blair and George Bush during the American President's state visit last week, saying: "Today, when global leaders meet, Aids is on the agenda."
But the world's response fell far short of what was required. A record five million people had been infected with HIV last year, one in five were HIV positive in sub-Saharan Africa and 40 million people were living with the virus. "It is quite clear that our current global efforts remain entirely inadequate," Dr Piot said. Although the population infected had remained steady in Africa, this was only because the number dying had matched the number becoming infected. In other parts of the world, such as Asia and China, the epidemic was in its early stages.
In a separate development, the European Union is planning to cut funding for centres monitoring the progress of Aids, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted infections in Europe from 2004.HIV/Aids is rising in the Baltic states such as Estonia, which are to join the EU.
Professor Angus Nicoll, of the Health Protection Agency, said: "I don't understand how the EU could be ceasing to support surveillance for these important infections at a time when it looks as if they are worsening across Europe."