Gates and Clinton shrug off the Aids cynics

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The Independent Online

The double Bills of the global fight against AIDS - Microsoft founder Gates and former American President Clinton - opened an international conference on the deadly disease yesterday by challenging governments to confront the virus and help end the stigma plaguing women.

In a round-table discussion, the two said they have devoted so much time to Aids, which has claimed more than 25 million lives since the first cases were uncovered in Africa 25 years ago, because they believe the disease is one of the greatest heartaches of their generation.

"It's a breathtaking human tragedy," Clinton said during the first senior-level discussion of the weeklong 16th International Aids Conference. "It is difficult to imagine how the world can grow together ... unless something serious is done to turn the tide of Aids."

More than 24,000 researchers, activists and health workers from 132 countries are attending the five-day summit. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the first reported cases of human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. Since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly 65 million people have been infected with HIV globally and Aids has killed more than 25 million people.

Gates noted that between 2003 and 2005, the number of people in low- and middle-income countries on antiretroviral drugs increased by 450,000 each year. Yet over the same period, the number of people who became infected with HIV averaged more than 4 million a year.

He said the development of a vaccine and drugs to prevent HIV infection, such as microbicides that would empower women in developing countries were now his priorities.

"If we had a tool for women to use, like microbicides, I think that would change the course of this disease and we would finally start to have years where you would see less infection," Gates said.

The Microsoft founder - whose philanthropic pockets just got deeper with a US$30 billion (€23.5 billion) commitment from Warren Buffet to fight diseases such as Aids - has stepped down from his day-to-day duties at the company to devote more time to charity.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given US$1.9 billion (€1.5 billion) to support HIV/AIDS projects worldwide since 1995 and announced last week a US$500 million (€391 million) grant to the Global Fund to fight AIDS.

Shortly after Gates and Clinton spoke, Melinda Gates joined a panel of women and also called for prevention tools for women to protect against HIV infection, such as vaginal microbicides "or an oral prevention drug that a women could take every day without her partner knowing."

Women in the Third World, especially young ones who are married off against their will, typically have little say over their bodies or health and partners who do not use condoms.

Melinda Gates said there were 16 microbicide early trials under way, but only five that were in more advanced testing. She added that AIDS activists need to make sure trials are ethical and done according to best clinical practice methods.

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