Celebrities, politicians and protesters alike have used the XV International AIDS Con-ference in Bangkok to renew calls for the provision of cheap antiretroviral drugs to the developing world.

The responsibility of western nations has been a major source of discussion at the conference, in particular the role of the United States.

Protesters disrupted the World AIDS Forum on Tuesday and called for US drug company Pfizer to allow the production of generic versions of patented antiretroviral drugs in developing companies. At a rally on Sunday, activists held signs reading Patent enforcement=death, while five drug companies closed their information booths in response to protests.

Kofi Annan, the first UN secretary-general to speak at the biennial conference, urged world leaders to do more to fight AIDS. Annan later told journalists the US should be as concerned about AIDS as they are about terrorism.

We need leaders everywhere to demonstrate that speaking up about AIDS is a point of pride, not a source of shame. There must be no more sticking heads in the sand, no more embarrassment, no more hiding behind a veil of apathy, Annan said.

The conference theme -“ Access For All -“ was also about access to effective prevention tools, conference co-chair Joep Lange said.

A shift towards abstinence as a prevention campaign, in both the United States and throughout the developing world, prompted heated debate.

Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni said on Tuesday that abstinence and faithfulness were the first line of defence against HIV and that condoms were an improvisation -“ not a solution.

His statements reflected the current US policy ABC: A for abstinence, B for being faithful and C for condoms. One third of treatment funding from the US to developing nations was dedicated to abstinence programs, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Don Baxter, executive director of AFAO, told the Herald there was no pressure from Australia to follow the US policy on abstinence, which Baxter said did not help prevent HIV.

On the medical front, delegates said funding was crucial. A report by the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative said despite currently trialling 30 vaccines, the group needed almost double its existing funding in order to continue.

Reflecting the relative local success in combating HIV, Australian representatives’ presentations include Growing older with HIV and HIV-positive people making choices about re-entering the workplace. However, NSW health groups are presenting a paper on the response to an increase in HIV infection rates within a well-educated and well-informed urban population.

The conference has attracted celebrity guests including Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Ashley Judd, Rupert Everett and Richard Gere. Gere told a press conference the money President Bush spent on fighting terrorism would have been better spent fighting AIDS.

Australia’s response to the global AIDS epidemic was highlighted on Sunday, when foreign minister Alexander Downer announced a $350 million funding increase over six years to combat AIDS in the Asia-Pacific region.

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