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Swiss to champion prevention at Aids conference

Crowds In Durban demonstrate for action to combat Aids in Africa Keystone

Switzerland intends to share its knowledge about preventing Aids, at the 13th International Aids Conference in South Africa. The meeting, which kicks off in earnest today, will focus on the alarming spread of HIV in many African states.

This content was published on July 10, 2000 - 12:51

The last international conference on Aids was held in Geneva two years ago. At that time many delegates were optimistic at the successes achieved by new treatments for the disease, in particular combination drug therapy. In wealthy countries such as Switzerland, thousands of Aids sufferers have been given a new lease of life thanks to new drugs.

But in Africa combination therapy is not widely available because it is simply too expensive for most poor countries. Moreover, Aids specialists believe that countries where medical services are sparse or disorganised would have difficulty making sure that victims abide by the strict and complex drug regime needed to make the treatment effective.

Meanwhile, HIV infection is spreading rapidly in Africa. Of the 33 million Aids cases worldwide, 22 million are in Africa.

"The situation is catastrophic," says Jean Jacques Thorens, head of the Swiss Federal Health Office's Aids prevention section. "In South Africa there is a new case of HIV infection every minute. Compare this with Switzerland, where we have about 600 new cases a year, or one or two a day.'"

Thorens will be taking a Swiss delegation to Durban to participate in the Aids conference. Already Switzerland has entered into a number of partnership projects in Africa aimed at Aids prevention, but delegates to the conference admit they are daunted by the scale of the epidemic in Africa.

"For a long time we didn't even notice that there was such a terrible problem in Africa," says Mark Baecher of the Swiss Aids Foundation. "I'm worried that we might already be too late to start effective prevention campaigns."

Prevention is the area in which the Swiss delegation hopes to contribute most. For many years Switzerland's own Stop Aids campaigns have attracted attention at home and abroad for their open approach to sex and sexuality. But Mark Baecher agrees that some of the tactics used here in Switzerland would not work in Africa, where sexuality is often surrounded by cultural taboos.

"Obviously our Swiss campaigns can't simply be applied unchanged to Africa. But I'm sure at the conference we can share know-how and experience. And it will be a chance to show solidarity with Aids sufferers in Africa. That is very important too."

The effect of Aids in Africa extends far beyond health concerns alone. Aids specialists believe that the epidemic, if allowed to go unchecked, will affect every aspect of life on the continent from the economy, to education to national security. It's estimated that in some African countries more than 30 per cent of teachers are infected with the HIV virus. In Zimbabwe, for example, Aids related illnesses account for 35 per cent of all lost working days.

Most tragic of all, it's predicted that in some areas, up to a third of young people under 25 will die of Aids. The developed world has a long history of turning a blind eye to the problems of poorer countries. The delegates in Durban this week will be hoping to change that.

by Imogen Foulkes

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