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European Aids community takes stock of progress

In western and central Europe an estimated 740,000 people are HIV positive. Keystone

Switzerland has saluted the European Union's pledge to tackle the HIV/Aids pandemic at the highest political level.

This content was published on March 14, 2007 - 08:01

At a two-day conference of EU health ministers and Aids experts in Bremen, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany, which holds the presidency of the EU and the G8, would ensure the issue was on both summit agendas in June.

"This really was the most important aspect of this conference," Roger Staub, head of the Federal Health Office's Aids unit, told swissinfo. "The point is that political action will be taken."

Around 600 Aids experts, health workers, activists, and politicians from EU and neighbouring countries, including a Swiss delegation, took part in the "Responsibility and partnership – together against HIV/Aids" conference on Monday and Tuesday.

Currently some 40 million people are said to be living with HIV/Aids worldwide. In western and central Europe, home to an estimated 740,000 people who are HIV-positive, major advances in treatment have prolonged and improved the lives of people with HIV.

But at the same time as therapeutic advances, there has been a decreasing emphasis on HIV prevention and a resurgence of high-risk sexual behaviour among European gay communities. The number of people living with HIV therefore continues to increase.

In Switzerland three out of every 1,000 people are living with HIV/Aids. Over the years better prevention has reduced infection rates among drug users and immigrants, but since 2003 new HIV infection rates among gay and bisexual men have doubled.

"One of our biggest concerns is how to fight the new epidemic among gay men," said Staub. "There is a real concern about what is happening. We are still searching for answers about how to deal with this problem and we haven't seen any new ideas here in Bremen."

Eastern Europe

Delegates also heard how in eastern Europe and central Asia, regions initially spared by HIV, severe epidemics have emerged among injecting drug users. This is rapidly spreading via heterosexual intercourse in several countries.

"I'm concerned about the rising epidemics in eastern countries like Ukraine and Russia. These are growing fast and are close to Europe and Switzerland. Sex work, prostitution and sex clients might spread HIV in our region and this would be a concern for Switzerland too," said Staub.

Peter Piot, head of the United Nations Aids programme, urged the EU to step up its efforts to help combat the disease in eastern Europe.

"The EU and Germany do a lot for developing countries, but not enough for their neighbours," said Piot.

Bremen Declaration

The conference also heard that ministers had succeeded in winning over major producers of Aids drugs to make their products affordable across Europe as part of a sustainable strategy in the fight against the disease.

German Health Minister Ulla Schmidt said that talks would begin in the coming months with affected countries in eastern Europe about price levels, particularly those nations bordering the EU.

The conference concluded with the signing of the "Bremen Declaration" agreeing, among other things, "to provide the political leadership on a national, European and international level" to fight the pandemic.

"The [declaration] says all the usual things we normally say," noted Staub. "But it's important as there are states, even in the EU, which don't accept gay men, intravenous drug use or the importance and need for harm reduction.

"It is important but, as one workshop found out, what we need now is action and the monitoring of political action – not more declarations," said Staub.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley

Key facts

According to the Swiss Aids Federation, more than 20,000 men and women live with HIV/Aids in Switzerland. Two people are diagnosed HIV-positive every day.
Between 1983 and 2005, 8,251 people were diagnosed with Aids, of whom 298 in 2004 and 234 in 2005.
To date, 5,622 people have died from Aids in Switzerland.
65 million people worldwide have contracted Aids since June 1981 and 25 million have died from the disease.
There are more than 38 million people living with HIV. 2.8 million people with HIV/Aids died in 2005, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

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