Britain urges action as Commonwealth shown to have 60% of all new Aids cases

BRITAIN YESTERDAY called on the Commonwealth to put the fight against Aids at the top of its agenda, pledging pounds 22.7m to fighting the disease in southern Africa, and earmarking two-thirds of the funds for vaccine development.

Tony Blair, who arrived at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Durban yesterday brought a report saying 60 per cent of new infections by HIV, the Aids virus, are in Commonwealth countries.

The report showed sub-Saharan Africa has two-thirds of the world's HIV infections in only one-tenth of the population. By 2010, said the report, life expectancy in the nine countries with the highest rate of HIV will have fallen from around 60 years to nearly 40. "Because we have made such progress at home, there is a danger of complacency about the sheer scale of the problem,'' said Mr Blair. "More than 90 per cent of all HIV-Aids cases are in developing countries. This is a disaster in economic, social and human terms."

Parts of the region - Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia - have the highest rates of HIV in the world, equally between men and women. In KwaZulu- Natal, which is hosting the summit, 33 per cent of pregnant women tested positive last year. The UN says there are 100,000 orphans of parents who died from Aids in the province.

Britain's donation is part of a pounds 100m programme, announced earlier this year to tackle Aids worldwide. It includes pounds 14m for vaccine development through a New York- based body which gives grants to researchers in return for partial intellectual property rights when a serum is found.

Victor Zonana, spokesman for the International Aids Vaccine Initiative (Iavi), said: "'A vaccine, even if it takes several years to reach the population, represents the best hope for the developing world.

"It is a route which has been neglected by the pharmaceutical companies because they see it as unprofitable and scientifically tough to achieve, and because the pressure in the industrialised world has been on treatment.''

Iavi, which is also backed by several US foundations, is funding research on two potential vaccines, one in Oxford and the other by researchers in South Africa and the US. Both are in early trial stages and not available for five to 10 years.

Mr Zonana added: `'It is crucial not to abandon preventative work and we must guard against magic bullet-ism. Our concern is the long-term.''

Yesterday, at a small HIV-Aids information centre run by the YMCA in the Durban township of Umlazi, a South African health economist, Alan Whiteside, urged the international community to step up its support for Aids prevention in the developing world.

He trains and sends out township teenagers for peer-education. "Life expectancy is now 55 in KwaZulu-Natal," he added. "Ten years ago it was 65. Every development gain in the last 30 years is being wiped out. In many African countries, the hospitals are overflowing.''

One peer trainer, Vusi Khuzwayo, 20, said misconceptions among young people he met were that Aids could be transmitted on cutlery and men could be cured if they had sex with virgins. "I talk to kids as young as nine and they know little. Their parents do not talk to them and they are afraid their house will be burnt if the neighbours find out."

George Foulkes, the deputy aid minister , said: "In Britain there are 1,600 new cases of HIV infection a year. In KwaZulu Natal there are 1,600 new cases each day."

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