16 June 2009Top United Nations officials today urged countries to maintain and strengthen their commitments to tackle HIV and AIDS in the midst of the global economic downturn, warning that slashing resources now could mean greater costs and suffering in the future. Addressing a meeting of the General Assembly convened to assess progress in the response to the global epidemic, its President, Miguel D’Escoto, noted that people living with HIV/AIDS have been placed at greater risk as a result of the global financial and economic crisis that is crippling economies around the world. “As a result of this ongoing crisis, I fear that many governments are resigned to reducing programmes and diminished expectations,” he told delegates. “But it is precisely when times are difficult that our true values and the sincerity of our commitment are most clearly evident.“Even as we see signs of cutbacks in AIDS funding in many countries, we must remind governments and the international community that the world has the resources to mount the kind of AIDS response to which we have committed. “If we allow cuts now, we will face increased costs and great human suffering in the future,” he stated. In 2006, the Assembly pledged to achieve universal access to comprehensive HIV prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010. A report by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on progress on HIV/AIDS commitments shows that achieving national universal access targets by 2010 will require an estimated annual outlay of $25 billion within two years.Mr. D’Escoto said that, as the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has pointed out, the amounts needed to achieve this goal represent “a miniscule fraction” of the sums that have been spent this year on economic stimulus measures. The Secretary-General’s report also highlights a number of encouraging developments such as countries establishing clear national targets for universal access, and a continued increase in financing for HIV programmes in low- and middle-income countries, reaching $13.7 billion in 2008.At the same time, the report says considerable challenges remain, including significant access gaps for key HIV-related services. Also, the pace of new infections continues to outstrip the expansion of treatment programmes, and commitment to HIV prevention remains inadequate.“Now is not the time to falter,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the meeting. “The economic crisis should not be an excuse to abandon commitments – it should be an impetus to make the right investments that will yield benefits for generations to come.” Mr. Ban said that a vigorous and effective response to the AIDS epidemic is integrally linked to meeting global commitments to reduce poverty, prevent hunger, lower childhood mortality, and protect the health and well being of women.“But to achieve the goal of universal access, barriers to progress need to be overcome. Not just in battling the disease, but also in confronting obstacles that society puts in the way,” he said, adding that the fight against AIDS also requires attacking “diseases of the human spirit – prejudice, discrimination, stigma.”He called on all governments to review their legal frameworks to ensure compliance with the human rights principles on which a sound AIDS response is based. “This is not solely a medical or scientific challenge. It is a moral challenge, too,” he said.Speaking to reporters after addressing the meeting, the Secretary-General discussed his own efforts to attack prejudice, discrimination and stigma. Among them, he said he met regularly with UN staff who lived with HIV and that he is pushing for all people living with HIV to participate in society without fear of discrimination.He was joined by UNAIDS chief Michel Sidibé, who commended Mr. Ban’s leadership in helping to break the “conspiracy of silence” on stigma, discrimination and criminalization against people living with HIV, particularly among vulnerable groups – homosexuals, sex workers and drug users.He added that “time is running out,” noting that the 2010 deadline for achieving universal access is right around the corner. “Unfortunately, we are far from reaching our goals.” Some 84 countries have reported that they have laws and policies that act as obstacles to effective HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for vulnerable populations, according to UNAIDS. “Achieving universal access to prevention, treatment, care and support is a human rights imperative. It is essential that the global response to the AIDS epidemic is grounded in human rights and that discrimination and punitive laws against those most affected by HIV are removed,” stated Mr. Sidibé.