Aids conference ends with optimism and cash

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The Independent Online

On a continent where Aids is seen as a heterosexual concern, Romeo Tshuma is at the sharp end of the stigma. Black, gay, HIV-positive and Zimbabwean, he rarely feels among friends. "In my country,'' he said yesterday, "men believe they can avoid the virus by having sex with other men."

On a continent where Aids is seen as a heterosexual concern, Romeo Tshuma is at the sharp end of the stigma. Black, gay, HIV-positive and Zimbabwean, he rarely feels among friends. "In my country,'' he said yesterday, "men believe they can avoid the virus by having sex with other men."

Fifteen years after the "gay plague" began killing the gifted and beautiful in the developed world, its progress in poor countries is proving much more rapid and devastating.

The 13th World Aids conference, which will be closed today in Durban by Nelson Mandela, has for the first time successfully brought together all the players in the pandemic, from HIV-positive African children to Nobel laureates.

Yet the principal players, the pharmaceutical companies whose £1.8m made the South African event possible, are unhappy. They do not want the conference, every two years, to return to the Third World, although, with 34 million HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infections and projections of many more, Africa, Asia and Latin America are their biggest potential markets.

Mr Tshuma, a 30-year-old delegate, has no access to antiretroviral drugs and no prospect of getting them. He tested HIV-positive in 1993 and is having health problems.

"My mind is positive, that is the main thing," said the former security guard who now works full-time as an Aids counsellor in Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo. "I follow a special diet which has helped me put on weight, though I have had tuberculosis and I have thrush and skin rashes."

Testing positive was devastating for Mr Tshuma, in President Robert Mugabe's homophobic Zimbabwe - where sodomy is illegal and homosexuality is considered a colonial import. "After I came out as gay, everyone taunted me saying I would die of Aids," he said. "So I had the HIV test to prove them wrong. Then it turned out positive."He said the conference had given him strength because it had made him realise he was not alone.

In the developed world, where activists in all spheres are used to getting together, that would be a cliché. In Africa, where individual rights are not recognised, talk of sex is taboo and conferences are luxuries, the Durban event has changed lives for the 12,000 delegates. Even President Thabo Mbeki's disappointing opening speech and his ministers' failure to turn up for debates or to answer questions about the country's confused policy over Aids, failed to overshadow the gains.

Prostitutes from all over the world rubbed shoulders with world-class immunologists, gay men from Japan, African children with HIV, a Ugandan priest with Aids, anarchists and United Nations officials.

The World Bank came up with a £350m pledge for Africa and Bill Gates's £30m for Botswana was matched in products by Merck Sharp & Dohme. Peter Piot, executive director of UNAids, called for £1.8bn annually to fight Aids in Africa. This week's pledges did not reach £1bn but they exceed the $300m a year spent on fighting the virus in Africa.

And what everyone thought impossible due to President Mbeki's views, the French government managed - a trial-pilot for 24,000 women in Soweto of Nevirapine, a drug which cuts mother-to-daughter transmission of HIV by 50 per cent, viewed with scepticism by the South African authorities.

Such was the spirit of bonhomie that charities shared exhibition space with multinational drug companies. Even Act-Up - the activists who disrupted the World Trade Organisation in Seattle - agreed to hang up their abseiling gear and occupy drug company stands by appointment. So yesterday when the Bristol Myers Squibb staff went for coffee, Act-Up plastered its posters all over the company's stand, wrote "greed kills" on the carpet (with adhesive tape which could be easily removed) and started selling its distinctive pink triangle T-shirts. The group did the same to Abbott and Merck Sharp & Dohme.

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