Spending goal set on AIDS

Airline ticket tax in 14 nations to help double funds to fight HIV

June 03, 2006|By MAGGIE FARLEY | MAGGIE FARLEY,LOS ANGELES TIMES

UNITED NATIONS -- A three-day AIDS conference set a goal yesterday of doubling spending to slow the spread of the disease, and 14 countries announced an airline ticket tax to fund greater access to AIDS drugs.

The special session on HIV/AIDS was marked by political haggling over the mention of condoms, safe drug use and sex education. Delegates agreed to refer to condoms specifically, but language on drug use and sex education is couched in euphemisms.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan pleaded with the assembled representatives, who included African presidents, foreign ministers from around the world and U.S. first lady Laura Bush, not to let politics derail future progress.

"AIDS ... has inflicted the single greatest reversal in the history of human development. The response has started to gain real strength ... but the epidemic continues to outpace us," he said. "This fight requires every president, every parliamentarian to say, `AIDS stops with me,' " he said.

Laura Bush called for an international HIV testing day, modeled on the United States' own, and praised the U.N.'s official anti-AIDS policy called ABC - Abstinence, Be faithful and Condom use - without dwelling on the fact that U.S. funds focus on abstinence-only programs, to the criticism of many activists who say that ignoring condoms is unrealistic.

The United States sided with unlikely allies such as Syria, Yemen and Pakistan in opposing "empowerment for girls" in birth control and marital relations, and it fought to water down financial targets despite its own substantial contributions.

In 2003, the United States committed to spending $15 billion over five years. But along with the European Union and Japan, it fears that the largest donors will carry not only the greatest financial burden of the new goals, but also the blame if they are not met, diplomats said.

The summit follows up a watershed 2001 conference, which resulted in $8 billion spent to fight AIDS. This conference, which concluded yesterday, was designed to take stock of progress in the five years since. There have been some successes, Annan said: Seven times as many people now have access to AIDS drugs, and the infection rate is declining in several African countries.

But a report released this week also said that the world has failed to meet many of the 2001 goals: Only 9 percent of pregnant women receive drugs to prevent the transmission of AIDS to their child, despite a target of 80 percent. The infection rate has grown rapidly in Asia, which is now second to Africa in the number of HIV-positive people.

The United Nations estimates that it needs more than $20 billion by the end of the decade to provide preventive education and medicines to the growing number of people infected. But world leaders shied away from promising specific amounts at the conference, and so far the AIDS treasury has pledges for less than half of what is needed.

Nevertheless, a group of 14 nations, led by France, announced a new mechanism to provide greater access to drugs, funded by a tax on airline tickets that is expected to raise more than $258.3 million a year.

France has voluntarily imposed an economy-class levy ranging from one euro - about $1.30 - in Europe to four euros for longer flights. For first and business class, the fee is 10 euros in Europe and 40 euros elsewhere.

The U.S. opposes the tax, but Brazil, Chile, Cyprus, Congo, France, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Norway and Britain have pledged to implement it. Starting July 1, France will collect the fee from all flights entering or leaving France.

Maggie Farley writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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