PARIS (AFP) — Activists sought Saturday to keep the battle against HIV in the public eye on World AIDS Day in the face of growing complacency amid progress in treating and slowing the spread of the disease.
Even the Miss World beauty pageant on the Chinese holiday island of Sanya was enlisted to get out the message that the disease daily kills some 6,000 people.
Chinese President Hu Jintao appeared on the front page of major state-controlled newspapers shaking the hand of a woman HIV carrier the day after the UN warned up to 50 million Chinese are at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.
December 1 has become a time of grim stocktaking as AIDS campaigners worldwide sound the alarm over the disease's rampage through Africa, the threat it poses to Asia and former Soviet republics, and the risks to vulnerable communities such as sex workers, drug users and gay men.
In Australia, campaigners warned that complacency after earlier success in fighting HIV/AIDS risked giving rise to a new wave of infections.
"This is the moment it all could go astray. This is the moment when it can become a pandemic," said AIDS awareness educator Vince Lovegrove, calling for a new campaign aimed at a new generation.
Government figures show that by the end of 2006, 26,267 Australians had been diagnosed with HIV and 10,l25 people had been diagnosed with AIDS, with 6,723 having died.
Last month, UNAIDS announced that the prevalence of HIV or AIDS -- the percentage of the world's population living with the HIV virus or the disease it causes -- peaked in the late 1990s.
The agency also reduced its estimate of the number of people living with HIV or AIDS to 33 million from nearly 40 million after overhauling data collection methods.
The tally of new infections has fallen, too, to an estimated 2.5 million in 2007 from 3.0 million in the late 1990s.
Meanwhile, the agonising effort to bring antiretroviral drugs to Africa, where more than two-thirds of the people with HIV/AIDS live, is now bearing fruit.
At the end of 2006, more than two million people were getting the vital pills, a 54 percent increase over the previous year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria said Friday the number of people on antiretroviral (ARV) drugs it is funding has doubled in the past year to 1.4 million.
"Despite substantial progress against AIDS worldwide, we are still losing ground," says James Shelton of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in a commentary appearing on Saturday in medical journal The Lancet.
He says treatment is still only available to about 10 percent of those in need, while in developing countries, "the number of new infections continues to dwarf the numbers who start antiretroviral therapy in developing countries".
Indonesia -- which the UN says has the fastest growing HIV epidemic in Asia -- marked the day with the launch of its first national campaign to promote the use of condoms, which currently account for less than one percent of contraception use.
The campaign in the world's most populous Muslim nation aims to remove the stigma of condom use.
Stigma is also a concern for campaigners in South Korea, where the number of HIV/AIDS cases stood at 5,155 as of the end of September, the Korea Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said.
The rate of new infections has been falling from 14.2 percent in 2004 to 11.5 percent in 2005 and 10.4 percent in 2006.
But experts cautioned the real number of HIV/AIDS infections would be much higher as South Korea has a strong social prejudice against the disease.
"Fixing the social prejudice is almost as urgent as fighting the disease itself," said Professor O Myung-Don of the Seoul National University Hospital.
Chinese health minister Chen Zhu earlier raised the estimate of the number of HIV/AIDS cases in China to about 700,000.
To raise awareness of the disease UNAIDS and the China Red Cross Foundation have organised the "Great AIDS Walk" on the Great Wall for Sunday.
One of the biggest areas of concern in the worldwide fight is funding.
According to the UN, there is currently an eight-billion-dollar shortfall in resources to fight AIDS.
To meet the Group of Eight (G8) goal of providing universal access to ARVs by 2010, 42 billion dollars will be needed. So far, only 15.4 billion is in the kitty.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, speaking in New York Friday, called on governments to accelerate effort towards that goal.
"I call for leadership among all governments in fully understanding the epidemic -- so that resources go where they are most needed," he said in a speech.
"And I call for leadership at all levels to scale up towards universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010," he said.
US President George W. Bush also marked the day by repeating his call on US lawmakers to double support for anti-AIDS programmes to 30 billion dollars over five years.