Thompson's AIDS speech drowned out by protesters

They urge United States to increase spending for drugs, global programs


BARCELONA, Spain - The U.S. secretary of health and human services, Tommy G. Thompson, was drowned out by jeering protesters who prevented an audience from hearing his address to the 14th International AIDS Conference here yesterday.

As Thompson, the head of the United States delegation to the conference, began his speech, protesters approached the stage, blew whistles and jeered. Thompson stopped talking until the demonstrators retreated up the aisle of a main conference hall.

Thompson, surrounded by security agents, resumed speaking. But the protesters resumed jeering, calling on the Bush administration to support safer sex and needle-exchange programs, provide more money for AIDS drugs and give billions more to the Global AIDS Foundation.

Thompson then read his talk, but the noise prevented the audience from hearing his words.

It was a day of protests seldom seen since the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when protesters chained themselves to doors of drug companies, squirted red fluid at scientists and heckled political leaders. In 1990, heckling prevented participants at the International AIDS Conference in San Francisco from hearing Louis W. Sullivan, who was secretary of health and human services in President George H.W. Bush's administration and who is attending this conference.

Yesterday, the protesters led a pharmaceutical company, Gilead, to close its large exhibit, where many of the 17,000 conference participants stopped for a free cup of coffee.

At this conference, international AIDS leaders like Dr. Peter Piot, an assistant director general of the United Nations and head of its AIDS program, have been urging the public to demand greater accountability from their governments for not doing more to stop the epidemic. On Sunday, Dr. Ronald O. Valdiserri, a senior AIDS official at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called on Americans "to revive the passion with which the U.S. once faced the HIV epidemic."

But Piot was among the leaders who criticized the protesters for not allowing the audience to hear Thompson discuss Bush administration policies.

Piot, who was a political activist in his youth, said in an interview that he supported the concept of protests "but only after someone has had a chance to speak, and there's no way one can judge what Thompson wanted to say."

At a news conference shortly after the demonstrations ended, a leading American economist, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, criticized the Bush administration for causing widespread confusion for its failure to issue a plan to battle AIDS.

Gregg Gonsalves, of the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City and a spokesman for the protesters, said they represented 12 groups in the United States.

They said they were protesting Thompson's statements here Sunday that the Bush administration was committed to reducing HIV incidence among American youth by 50 percent by 2010; redressing racial and ethnic disparities fueling the epidemic in the United States; and providing sufficient support for domestic and international programs to reverse the epidemic.

The protesters said the promises were "hollow" because instead the Bush administration was "attacking science-based prevention programs that talk frankly about sex and supporting abstinence-only prevention programs."

The protesters criticized the Bush administration for refusing to support needle-exchange programs despite what they called ample scientific evidence that they can reduce the spread of HIV and not increase drug use.

Another charge was that the administration was denying 10,000 Americans with AIDS access to drug treatment because it did not fully finance the U.S. AIDS Drug Assistance Program.

Still another charge was that the administration was reducing the United States' donation to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis to $200 million from $500 million "and restricting that donation to the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV only."

Thompson criticized the protesters "for being close-minded."

In a telephone interview from his car as he left the conference center after the protests, Thompson said he was "sorry that the militants had to rush the stage instead of listening, but that is their prerogative."

In a prepared text of his speech, Thompson said that the government had doubled its international financing in 18 months.

"No administration in any nation has ever made fighting HIV-AIDS as high a priority as the United States under this administration," Thompson said.

The United States has pledged $500 million, more than any other nation, Thompson said in urging other countries to contribute more.

Thompson said the administration "will provide more than $500 million over the next 18 months to prevent the transmission of HIV from mothers to infants and to improve the health care delivery systems in 12 African nations and the Caribbean."

The aim is to reduce infection rates among newborns by 40 percent within five years in those regions, Thompson said.

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