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19 September, 2008

UN ASSISTS CHINA WITH CRISIS OVER CONTAMINATED POWDERED INFANT FORMULA

The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) is assisting Chinese authorities with a melamine-contaminated powdered food crisis that has caused more than 6,000 cases of kidney stones in infants and three deaths across the country.

Chinese health ministry officials have confirmed these cases are related to melamine-contaminated powdered formula consumed by the infants. WHO, the UN coordinating authority for health, has taken action in disseminating information on the situation to its Member States through the International Food Safety Authorities Network (IFOSAN).

A chemical most commonly found in the form of white crystals, melamine can cause kidney stones when consumed, potentially stop the production of urine, lead to kidney failure and in some cases death.

Following investigations carried out by China’s national inspection agency, 22 dairy manufacturers were found to have melamine in a number of different brands of powdered infant formula, in one brand of a frozen yoghurt dessert and in one brand of canned coffee drink. WHO has stated on their website that all these products were most probably manufactured using ingredients made from melamine-contaminated milk.

While two of the companies exported products to Bangladesh, Burundi, Myanmar, Gabon and Yemen, contamination in the distributed products remains unconfirmed. A recall has however been issued from China and IFOSAN has specifically alerted the five countries importing the products.

Last year a range of pet food manufactured in China and exported to the United States was similarly melamine-contaminated which caused the death of a large number of dogs and cats due to kidney failure.

WHO remains in close communication with the Chinese health ministry to monitor the situation and assist with information dissemination.

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28 July, 2008

GUINEA-BISSAU: UN GOODWILL AMBASSADOR HELPS BOOST MATERNAL HEALTH

The first brick in the construction of a maternity surgical unit has been laid in eastern Guinea-Bissau by Catarina Furtado, a well-known Portuguese actress and television personality who is also Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

At the groundbreaking ceremony in the town of Gabu on Friday, Ms. Furtado noted the importance of the project for the reduction of maternal mortality in Guinea-Bissau, one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries.

Citing the UNFPA slogan “Because everyone counts,” she appealed for wide and effective participation and commitment to the project’s success.

UNFPA said the building would provide life-saving services to newborns and their mothers in a country where women die at an alarming rate while giving birth.

In December 2006 Ms. Furtado helped raise nearly $400,000 during a 12-hour televised dance marathon. The money was donated to UNFPA for use in a Portuguese-speaking country.

Local authorities, government and UN officials, religious leaders, young people and the general public attended the event, which included traditional dances, theatre and music.

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23 July, 2008

HIV/AIDS TO BE FOCUS OF BAN’S UPCOMING MEXICO VISIT

The fight against AIDS will be one of the top priorities on the agenda of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when he makes his first official visit to Mexico next month.

Together with Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Mr. Ban will open the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, marking the first time the gathering is being held in Latin America.

The Secretary-General – who will reaffirm that the AIDS epidemic is not over and that a long-term vision to respond to it is needed – is expected to meet with world leaders, people living with HIV and community groups during the Conference, as well as on its sidelines.

During his three-day visit to Mexico that kicks off on 3 August, he will hold talks with Mr. Calderón and with Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa Cantellano.

Mr. Ban also plans to address a joint session of the Mexican Senate and Chamber of Deputies, as well as confer on climate change with authorities and meet with business leaders through the UN Global Compact’s Mexico network.

In a related development, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will launch a pack of resources at the Mexico City conference that provides guidance on developing policies, allocating resources and putting education and HIV programmes in place.

The new resource bundle includes dozens of technical briefs citing country examples and covering issues such as “Focused HIV prevention for key populations.”

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22 April, 2008

AS CANCER CASES RISE IN ALBANIA, UN AGENCIES JOIN FORCES TO HELP FIGHT DISEASE

The United Nations nuclear watchdog and the world body’s health agency are teaming up to try to slow the spread of cancer in Albania, where the number of diagnosed cases has surged in the past two decades.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have helped Albanian authorities draft a national cancer control programme to serve the small country’s population of 3.6 million people, IAEA said in a news report issued yesterday.

More than 4,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in Albania, up from around 2,800 in 1990, and cancer is now second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death. Albanian health specialists say changes in lifestyle since the fall of the Communist regime, connected to food, smoking, pollution, physical activity, stress and other factors, have significantly increased the risk factors.

More than two-thirds of cancer cases in Albania are diagnosed too late for effective treatment, a common feature of low-income countries. Palliative care services are also extremely limited.

The IAEA said it is also providing expertise and equipment and facilitating training in fields such as radiation oncology through its Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT).

Mikiko Sawanishi, the agency’s technical cooperation programme management officer for Albania, said safety was the priority for the IAEA.

“Because of the specialized nature of radiation medicine, we are working closely with the Government to ensure the [national] oncology institute receives full support and that its personnel are competent,” she said.

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8 February, 2008

POLIO ERADICATION WITHIN REACH – BAN KI-MOON

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today said that the total eradication of polio is within sight, hailing the efforts of Chicago-based Rotary International and other United Nations partners in this effort.

“Rotary International has led a $600 million worldwide campaign to wipe out polio. Sometime this year, their work will be done. Polio will be history, like smallpox,” said Mr. Ban in an address to the Economic Club of Chicago.

The global polio partnership is spearheaded by the UN World Health Organization (WHO), Rotary International, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Over the past 20 years, the number of cases has fallen by over 99 per cent. In 2007, more than 400 million children were immunized against the disease, which remains only in northern India, northern Nigeria and the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Prior to the meeting with the Economic Club, Mr. Ban received the Rotary International Award of Honor from the organization’s President, Wilfrid J. Wilkinson.

The award recognizes leaders in the international community “for their significant contributions in promoting humanitarian service, encouraging high ethical standards and advancing the goals of world peace and cross-cultural understanding,” according to officials from Rotary International.

Previous recipients include Kofi Annan, Margaret Thatcher, F.W. DeKlerk four US presidents.

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15 October, 2007

UN HEALTH AGENCY ISSUES CHOLERA ALERT FOR SOMALIA

The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of an imminent risk of cholera in southern Somalia, where tens of thousands of people were affected by a previous outbreak which killed over 1,000 just a few months ago.

Seven new cases have been confirmed so far in the capital, Mogadishu, as well as Berdale and Burhakaba.

WHO says the new cases represent an even more serious threat than the outbreak that occurred three months ago which affected more than 37,000 people and led to over 1,100 deaths.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has begun delivering cholera kits and oral rehydration therapy supplies to the area.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that the flood alert was raised from moderate to high on the Shabelle and Juba Rivers following significant rainfall in South Somalia and the Ethiopian highlands where the two rivers originate. An inter-agency mission to assess the situation and possible interventions is being planned.

Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that, in a two-way flow of displaced, nearly 31,000 people fled ongoing insecurity, sporadic violence and looting in Mogadishu since the beginning of September, while nearly 800 internally displaced persons (IDPs) returned to the Somali capital.

In addition, nearly 7,300 residents and IDPs have been evicted from their homes in government and public buildings since June, according to UNHCR’s Population Movement Tracking.

Somalia, which has had no functioning central government since the regime of Muhammad Siad Barre was toppled in 1991, has seen renewed fighting since the beginning of this year, after the Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) drove the Union of the Islamic Courts (UIC) out of Mogadishu and most of the rest of the country in December.

Since the onset of fighting in January, UNHCR reports that between February and May, about 400,000 IDPs moved from Mogadishu, with about 125,000 returning between April and June. Since June, nearly 85,000 people have moved from the capital.

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October, 2007

VIRUSES FROM TROPICAL COUNTRIES ARE MOVING TO TEMPERATE ZONES, UN AGENCY WARNS

Animal diseases are advancing globally and countries will have to invest more in surveillance and control measures, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said today, citing West Nile Virus, Crimean Congo Haemorrhagic Fever and other plagues that have crossed from tropical to temperate zones.

“No country can claim to be a safe haven with respect to animal diseases,” warned FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech in a news release.

“Transboundary animal diseases that were originally confined to tropical countries are on the rise around the globe. They do not spare temperate zones including Europe, the United States and Australia,” he added.

Globalization, the movement of people and goods, tourism, urbanization and probably also climate change are favouring the spread of animal viruses around the planet, FAO noted.

“The increased mobility of viruses and their carriers is a new threat that countries and the international community should take seriously. Early detection of viruses together with surveillance and control measures are needed as effective defence measures,” Mr. Domenech said, calling for strong political support and funding for animal health and more adequate veterinary services.

The agency raised concern about the spread of the non-contagious bluetongue virus, which affects cattle, goats, deer and sheep. First discovered in South Africa, it has spread to many countries for reasons that remain unclear, FAO said.

“We never expected that the bluetongue virus could affect European countries at such high latitudes,” said FAO Animal Health Officer Stephane de la Rocque. “The virus is already endemic in Corsica and Sardinia but could also persist in northern European countries.”

Other examples of human and animal disease agents that were previously mainly found in tropical regions and that have spread internationally include: West Nile Virus, transmitted by mosquitos, carried by birds and sometimes affecting also humans; Leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease that spreads through the bite of infected sand flies; and tick-borne Crimean Congo Haemorrhagic Fever, FAO said.

African swine fever has recently reached Georgia and Armenia and poses a threat to neighbouring countries, it noted.

Mosquitos that can transmit major human diseases such as yellow fever, dengue and chickunguya have already reached European countries and may constitute a major public health concern.

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24 September, 2007

FILM STAR RUPERT EVERETT VISITS RUSSIA AS UN ENVOY ON HIV/AIDS

Rupert Everett, the actor who is a Special Representative of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), is on a four-day visit to Russia to learn what is being done to reverse the spread of the epidemic in a country where the number of those living with HIV is officially put at 386,000, but is widely believed to be up to 1.1 million.

“This trip is special to me – I want to help UNAIDS raise awareness about how HIV affects the most vulnerable groups in our society,” said Mr. Everett, known for several acclaimed films including “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “Another Country.” “Often HIV is linked with other diseases such as TB and those affected are often discriminated against.”

Mr. Everett, who will visit specific AIDS and tuberculosis (TB) projects in St. Petersburg and Moscow, has for many years been active in AIDS response, but this is his first official trip with UNAIDS since being appointed a Special Representative on World AIDS Day last December. He will be accompanied by UNAIDS Regional Director Bertil Lindblad and Programme Coordinator Lisa Carty.

Mr. Lindblad underlined the importance of celebrity support in the AIDS response and in particular how Mr. Everett’s visit to Russia will help draw attention to the problems in the region. “People in the public eye like Rupert Everett can inspire and motivate others to unite against AIDS,” he said.

Worldwide more than 39.5 million people are estimated to be living with HIV. In 2006, 2.9 million people died of AIDS.

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11 September, 2007

EBOLA VIRUS OUTBREAK IN CENTRAL DR CONGO CLAIMS 160 LIVES – UN HEALTH AGENCY

At least 160 people have died in an outbreak of the highly lethal haemorrhagic Ebola virus in the centre of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) reported today, announcing that it is rushing medical and supplies to the region to try to contain the disease.

Laboratory analysis conducted in Gabon and the United States on samples taken from cases in the outbreak have confirmed the presence of the Ebola virus, which causes death in 50 to 90 per cent of cases.

WHO said some of the samples also show the presence of a type of dysentery, which is complicating the treatment of victims, who are concentrated in the Mweka and Lwebo areas of DRC’s Kasai Occidental province.

So far there have been 372 confirmed cases and 166 deaths, according to WHO, while Radio Okapi – which is part-operated by the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUC) – reported today that there have been 168 deaths.

DRC health ministry officials are leading the response to the outbreak, but WHO said it was providing staff, supplies and equipment to the areas affected and it was also mobilizing a team of national and international experts to implement strategies to try to limit the size of the outbreak.

The Ebola virus is transmitted by direct contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected persons or animals such as chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys and antelopes, and it has an incubation period of two to 21 days.

Health-care workers have frequently been infected while treating sufferers because of the lack of adequate infection control precautions in affected countries in Central Africa. Burial ceremonies also can play a role in transmitting the virus when mourners have direct contact with the body of the deceased person.

Sufferers can experience fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headaches and sore throats, as well as vomiting, diarrhoea, rashes and impaired kidney and liver function. In the most severe cases, the virus can lead to both external and internal bleeding.

WHO said there is no indication yet of any need to impose trade or travel restrictions with the DRC as a result of the outbreak.

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16 August, 2007

UN AGENCY ISSUES NEW GUIDANCE FOR INSECTICIDE-TREATED MOSQUITO NETS TO FIGHT MALARIA

The United Nations health agency today issued new global guidance on the use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets against malaria, for the first time recommending that they be long-lasting, distributed either free or highly subsidized, and used by all community members to fight a disease that kills more than 1 million people each year.

Until now, UN World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines focused primarily on providing nets for children under five and pregnant women, but recent studies from Kenya show that expanding use of the nets to all people in targeted areas increases coverage and enhances protection of vulnerable groups while protecting all community members.

“WHO's new evidence-based guidance provides a road map for ensuring that life-saving, long-lasting insecticidal nets are more widely available and used by communities, and are more effective in protecting poor women and children,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said. “The collaboration between the Government of Kenya, WHO, and donors serves as a model that should be replicated throughout malarious countries in Africa.”

The nets are treated with insecticides that repel, disable or kill the vector mosquitoes which transmit malaria. Conventional insecticide-treated mosquito nets need to be re-treated regularly, while long-lasting insecticidal nets, costing about $5 each, are designed to be effective without re-treatment for the life of the net – up to five years.

In areas of high transmission where young children and pregnant women are the most vulnerable, WHO now recommends making their protection the immediate priority while progressively achieving full coverage. Malaria kills a child every 30 seconds somewhere in the world, mostly in Africa.

In Kenya, from 2004 to 2006, a near ten-fold increase in the number of young children sleeping under insecticide-treated nets was observed in targeted districts, resulting in 44 per cent fewer deaths than among children not protected, according to preliminary data from the Government.

These achievements can be attributed to three principal ingredients, which all need to be present for malaria control efforts to succeed - high political commitment from the government, strong technical assistance from WHO, and adequate funding from bilateral and multilateral donors.

Between 2002 and 2006, with a £6 million grant from the United Kingdom Department for International Development, WHO supported the Kenyan Government's free mass distribution of nets and provided technical support and a full-time logistician to support planning and implementation.

The new WHO guidance recommends that campaign-like mass distribution strategies be complemented by delivery through routine health services to achieve and maintain high levels of coverage.

Until recently, progress in scaling up use of the nets has been slow in many countries, due in part to the inability of the international community to reach a consensus on how to deliver them. Approaches have included commercial channels, social marketing, and free or subsidized distribution through routine public health services or campaigns.

The new WHO guidance stresses that cost should not be a barrier to access. Thus far, only free distribution has enabled rapid achievement of high population coverage and elimination of inequities in net use, as has been demonstrated in Kenya.

“This data from Kenya ends the debate about how to deliver long-lasting insecticidal (or just mosquito nets) nets,” Arata Kochi, head of WHO's Global Malaria Programme, said. “No longer should the safety and well-being of your family be based upon whether you are rich or poor. When insecticide-treated mosquito nets are easily available for every person, young or old, malaria is reduced.”

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23 May, 2007

UN-SPONSORED HEALTH ASSEMBLY CLOSES WITH AGREEMENTS ON FLU CONTROL, MEDICINES

The supreme decision-making body of the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) wrapped up its annual session today, reaching last-minute agreements on pandemic influenza preparedness and access to medicines for the poor.

A budget increase of nearly $1 billion dollars and action on a wide variety of issues from adjusting malaria medications to bolstering emergency trauma care were also decided at the 60th World Health Assembly, which took place from 14 to 23 May in Geneva with more than 2,400 people from WHO’s 193 Member States, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other observers attending.

In its resolution on preparing for a possible massive outbreak of influenza – such as the H5N1 or “bird flu” virus – in humans, Member States agreed on the need to improve international cooperation through greater production of vaccines and equitable access to them under International Health Regulations (IHR).

“I want to underscore the importance of this decision, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told the delegates in her closing remarks. “My responsibilities in implementing the IHR depend on this sharing.”

In that light, the resolution tasks an interdisciplinary working group with drawing up new responsibilities for the WHO Influenza Collaborating Centre Network, and its H5 reference laboratories, for the purpose of sharing influenza viruses.

The topic of “public health, innovation and intellectual property” involves not only access to existing medicines, other therapies and diagnostics by the poor, but also the fact that some health products for diseases that affect developing countries are simply not developed at all due to the lack of a sustainable market, according to a WHO study released last year.

The resolution adopted by the Assembly encouraged the Director-General to guide the process to draw up a global strategy to remedy the problem and to provide technical and policy support to developing countries for that purpose.

“I am fully committed to this process and have noted your desire to move forward faster,” Dr. Chan commented. “We must make a tremendous effort. We know our incentive: the prevention of large numbers of needless deaths and suffering,” she said.

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18 May, 2007

MEDICAL TRENDS REVEALED IN LATEST UN HEALTH STATISTICS COMPILATION

The rising deaths caused by non-communicable diseases and the vast inequality in health resources between developed and developing countries are two of the trends spotlighted in an annual statistical compilation released today by the United Nations.

The World Health Organization (WHO) report represents the most complete set of health statistics available, for a set of 50 health indicators from the agency’s 193 Member States, with the new edition also highlighting trends in 10 of the most closely watched global health figure.

According to the publication, World Health Statistics 2007, the ageing of the global population will result in significant increases in the total number of deaths caused by most non-communicable diseases, particularly cancer, over the next 30 years.

In regard to the distribution of health resources, the volume points out that there is a 20/90 syndrome in which 30 developed countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) make up less than 20 per cent of the world’s population but spend 90 per cent of available health funding.

Other trends monitored by the publication include projections of mortality for the year 2030, aspects of maternal mortality, rates of growth stunting due to malnutrition, the extent to which people can access treatment, the major risk factors for ill-health, and health outcomes in the context of demographic factors in individual countries.

In her speech introducing the report to current World Health Assembly, the annual policy-making meeting of WHO, Director-General Margaret Chan, focused on the need for accurate evidence and up-to-date statistics as the basis for policy decisions.

“Reliable health data and statistics are the foundation of health policies, strategies, and evaluation and monitoring," Dr. Chan told the gathering in Geneva. “Evidence is also the foundation for sound health information for the general public.”

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07 May, 2007

BAN KI-MOON URGES ACTION TO HELP WORLD’S 2.6 BILLION PEOPLE LACKING SANITATION SERVICES

The world is lagging seriously in its efforts to slash the number of people who lack access to decent sanitation, leaving too many people deprived of basic dignity, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today, calling for concrete measures from United Nations Member States, civil society groups and others in the year ahead to remedy the problem.

Mr. Ban told the first preparatory meeting for the International Year of Sanitation, which will be marked in 2008, that “access to sanitation is a fundamental issue of human dignity and human rights, and also of economic development and environmental protection.”

An estimated 2.6 billion people – including about 980 million children – worldwide do not have access to basic sanitation services, a statistic Mr. Ban described as “simply unacceptable.” Instead they are forced to defecate in bags, buckets or roadside ditches, causing serious health risks to themselves and others.

Mr. Ban urged the participants at today’s meeting, held at UN Headquarters in New York, to make the most of the opportunity provided by the official Year to generate “real, positive changes” for those without sanitation.

“Efforts by UN agencies are just one part of the equation. Real change demands resources, commitment, policy changes and other concrete steps by governments, civil society and all stakeholders.”

Access to sanitation “is deeply and inextricably connected to virtually all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), in particular those involving the environment, education, gender equality and the reduction of child mortality and poverty.”

The MDGs are a series of anti-poverty targets which world leaders agreed in 2000 to try to work towards, and they include a commitment to halve by 2015 the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation. Yet if current trends continue, the number of people without basic sanitation will only drop to 2.4 billion by 2015.

Today’s meeting was held after the General Assembly voted in December last year to designate 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation. Participants included representatives of UN Member States, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academics, civil society groups and the private sector.

The meeting heard improved sanitation facilities could have dramatic effects, from reducing diarrhoea-related deaths among young children by more than one third to speeding up economic development in countries where poor sanitation is a key cause of lost work and school days.

The Prince of Orange, Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, who is Chairperson for the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, told the meeting that it is important to translate the general goals of the Year into measurable targets that include concrete plans and detailed figures.

“What do we want to achieve by the end of 2008, and how do we achieve it?” he asked.

UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Ann M. Veneman said in a message to the meeting that young people are especially vulnerable to diseases caused by a lack of proper sanitation, with unsafe water and bad hygiene and sanitation thought responsible for the deaths of 1.5 million children under the age of five every year.

Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs José Antonio Ocampo added his voice to the calls for accelerated action. He called the lack of access to sanitation a “silent humanitarian crisis” because it is a problem so many people are too shy or embarrassed to discuss openly.

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10 April, 2007

UN HEALTH AGENCY HAILS MOVE TO CUT PRICE OF KEY HIV/AIDS DRUG

The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) today welcomed the decision of Abbott Laboratories to reduce the price of a drug which has proved particularly effective as a “second-line” antiretroviral therapy (ART) for people living with HIV/AIDS.

The price of lopinavir/ritonavir (LPV/r, marketed as Kaletra/Aluvia) has been lowered by Abbott in some low and middle-income countries, where many HIV/AIDS drugs are unaffordable and demand for this medicine is growing.

Worldwide the number of people being treated with ART keeps growing in low and middle-income countries. This has caused a rise in the number of people in those nations who have developed resistance to so-called “first-line” treatments, thus boosting demand for second-line ART.

In a statement released today, the WHO welcomed Abbott’s decision and said it would continue to work with countries, people living with HIV/AIDS, organizations and the pharmaceutical industry “to find mechanisms that address the immediate need to rapidly increase access and affordability of life-saving drugs, while maintaining the long-term need to foster research and development in innovative medicines.”

WHO has pledged to work towards universal access to HIV prevention services and to treatment and care for people living with HIV/AIDS, all by 2010.

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4 April, 2007

AT UN-BACKED MEETING, HIV EXPERTS SEEK WIDER CONDOM USE FOR SEX WORKERS

Experts meeting in Beijing today at a United Nations-backed regional workshop on stopping the spread of HIV called for the promotion of increased condom use between sex workers and their clients.

Unprotected sex is now the leading transmission route for HIV in China, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) said in a news release. Sex work, in a variety of settings, is widespread, and condom use is generally low.

The meeting offered an opportunity for participants to review successful local efforts to promote “100 per cent condom use” or “no condom, no sex” in relations between sex workers and clients. Approaches vary, but generally involve cooperation among health authorities, police, entertainment venue owners, and sex workers trained to be peer educators, the agency said.

“The only way HIV/AIDS can spread into a general epidemic is through sexual transmission,” Dr. Hank Bekedam of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) told the meeting. “Scaling up the 100 per cent Condom Use Programme is an urgent priority.”

“If you want your programmes to work, involve communities,” stressed Khartini Siamah, coordinator of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers. Health workers need training so they don’t stigmatize sex workers seeking services, she added. “What does empowerment mean when sex workers cannot exercise their rights?”

“Sex workers are among the most vulnerable population group in the AIDS epidemic,” Dr. Bekedam said. “Promoting the consistent use of condoms will empower them to protect themselves and help to reduce the spread of AIDS.”

The two-day workshop, co-hosted by UNFPA and WHO, brought together 120 participants from national, provincial and local health departments, academic institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and UN agencies.

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2nd April, 2007

DESPITE FEWER OUTBREAKS THIS YEAR, UN AGENCY WARNS BIRD FLU STILL THREATENS LIVES

Although there have been fewer outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus this year, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today warned that the disease continues to spread to new areas in countries where it has not been contained, threatening the lives of those working around poultry and hurting farm economies.

Worldwide, “there have been fewer cases of the disease this year than last year at the same time, indicating that there is a reduction in overall viral load,” said Joseph Domenech, Chief Veterinanry Officer of the FAO.

Last year, 53 countries reported H5N1 outbreaks while this year, only 17 countries have been affected.

Dr. Domenech said that surveillance and reporting of the virus has improved, and also he noted that the presence of H5N1 in wild birds is less this year. Last year, avian flu was believed largely to have been transmitted through the migration of contaminated birds.

This season, the poultry trade is seen as main route by which the disease spreads, and the greatest threat the virus poses is that every instance a person contracts H5N1 from poultry offers a new possibility for mutation into a form which could spread rapidly between people.

“The risk of a pandemic will be with us for the foreseeable future,” Dr. Domenech said. “This situation is a constant call to increase global efforts to contain this disease before it has an opportunity to mutate into a form that can threaten the world with a human pandemic.”

Although Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam have been generally successful in controlling the virus, FAO experts say that Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria have not been able to contain it, making them reservoirs of the disease for possible introduction to other countries.

In Egpyt, 24 human cases of the virus have been reported since mid-February, of which 13 were fatal. Outbreaks have occurred on four commercial farms and 13 cases originated in backyard poultry farms since the beginning of last month.

The country has been hindered in curbing the disease for several reasons, including the lack compensation for farmers who lose poultry due to culling. Egypt is currently revising its plan for controlling the disease with the help of FAO and other international partners.

Since the avian flu first surfaced in 2003, Indonesia has seen the highest death toll of any country, with 66 fatalities out of 171 worldwide.

Only three of the 33 Indonesian provinces are bird flu free, and the virus remains endemic in Java, Sumatra, Bali and South Sulawesi, according to FAO. Disease surveillance is being bolstered by FAO’s village-based Participatory Disease Surveillance system now functional in 130 of the 444 districts in the country, but more comprehensive information on nationwide outbreaks will remain spotty until surveillance coverage is increased.

Containing the disease in Indonesia has been hampered by its large size and geography with 17,000 islands spread over three time zones, a weak national veterinary service and insufficient global and national financing of prevention and control.

In Nigeria, authorities have not been able to control the movement of poultry and poultry products in infected areas, causing the disease to spread in many parts of the country.

FAO also cautions of the spread of H5N1 to new countries. Last month, the virus was detected in Bangladesh for the first time, and the agency said that this is not a surprising development since the disease is circulating in the wider region and transmission by contaminated migrating birds cannot be rule out.

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06 March, 2007

LET THE GAMES BEGIN: CRICKET WORLD CUP TO BAT FOR UN WAR ON HIV/AIDS

When the top cricketers from across the planet come out to bat and bowl in the Cricket World Cup opening in the West Indies on Sunday, they will also be taking aim at HIV/AIDS in a United Nations campaign focusing on issues facing children and young people affected by the disease and the resources and actions needed to address them.

The International Cricket Council is teaming up with the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Caribbean Broadcast Media Partnership, in the latest collaboration between the UN and world sports bodies, to produce a series of public service announcements (PSAs) and other events during the seven-week- long Cup, which is expected to draw more than 2 billion television viewers.

The public, especially young people aged 15-24, will get information on the stigma and discrimination around HIV and on how to protect themselves against the virus.

“Young people today have never known a world without AIDS,” UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot said. “Sports stars such as top cricket players can act as role models for today’s young generation and reach out to them on AIDS issues. Sport is a force for change that can break down barriers, build self-esteem and teach life skills and social behaviour.”

He added that by highlighting AIDS issues, the Cricket World Cup and its cricketing stars “are showing exactly the kind of exceptional response needed for the exceptional challenge of AIDS.”

Through high profile activities around cricket’s biggest event, the Council is supporting the Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS campaign launched in 2005 by UNICEF, UNAIDS and other partners, which is focused on ensuring antiretroviral treatment for HIV-positive children, preventing mother-to-child transmission, promoting education programmes to help prevent HIV transmission, and aiding children who have been orphaned by AIDS.

“Children have been the missing face of the AIDS pandemic,” UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman said. “The International Cricket Council will be a powerful ally in ensuring that children are at the heart of the global response to the epidemic.”

The PSAs, each lasting 30 seconds, will be available to broadcasters free of charge. They feature leading players, including Ricky Ponting from Australia and Rahul Dravid from India, speaking about how HIV affects children. Players and officials from each team will wear the red and blue ribbon of the Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS campaign during their first games and during the final. Players will also visit programmes supporting children and young people affected by HIV.

“We hope the range of activities delivered at the ICC Cricket World Cup 2007 will make a difference to raising awareness and reducing stigma around HIV in the Caribbean and across the ever-growing cricket world,” ICC President Percy Sonn said. “By encouraging high profile players to support this campaign, we hope to be able to engage those who may otherwise be difficult to reach.”

Cricket is popular in many of the countries most affected by AIDS, including India and South Africa. Together, these two countries are home to around 11 million of the 40 million people estimated to be living with HIV. In the Caribbean, where the Cup is being held, UNAIDS estimated that 250,000 people were living with HIV in 2006, 15,000 of them children aged 0-14 years.

The ICC is being supported in the effort by the Caribbean Broadcast Media Partnership on HIV/AIDS, a coalition of over 50 broadcasters in 23 Caribbean countries and territories.

“The exceptional reach of broadcast media in the Caribbean gives us a unique opportunity to educate audiences about how to avoid HIV, and how to combat the stigma and discrimination that surround the disease,” the Partnership’s Steering Committee Chair Allyson Leacock said.

The campaign is but the latest in a whole series of collaboration between UN agencies and world sport, which has seen the likes of football legends Ronaldo and Zinédine Zidane shooting against poverty, the European Swimming League in “a race against time” to prevent deaths from unclean water, and similar initiatives with the International Rugby Board, American football stars, marathon runners and Formula One auto racers.

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16 January, 2007

UN REPORTS PROGRESS IN ENDING MOTHER-INFANT HIV TRANSMISSION BUT URGES MORE ACTION

Although some countries have achieved breakthroughs in preventing HIV transmission from mothers to children and providing treatment for children living with HIV/AIDS, an “unconscionably” low per cent of pregnant women with HIV are receiving the necessary treatment, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said today.

In a report entitled “Children and AIDS: A Stocktaking” released to mark the one-year anniversary of the launch by UNICEF and its partners of the “Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS” campaign, the agency stressed the paramount urgency of preventing HIV transmission from mothers to children and keeping mothers free from HIV/AIDS.

An estimated 530,000 children under 15 were newly infected with HIV in 2006, mainly through mother-to-child transmission. Without treatment, 50 per cent will die before age two.

“There is an urgent need to help children impacted by HIV/AIDS,” UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman said. “Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS is focused on ensuring treatment for HIV-positive children, prevention of mother-to-child transmission and assisting children who have been orphaned by AIDS. We must build momentum to achieve positive results for children.”

The stocktaking report finds signs of considerable progress with some high-prevalence countries in Eastern and Southern Africa achieving breakthroughs in preventing mother-to-child transmission.

In Namibia, the percentage of HIV-infected pregnant women who received antiretrovirals (ARVs) to prevent transmission increased from 6 per cent in 2004 to 29 per cent in 2005. In South Africa the percentage increased from 22 per cent in 2004 to 30 per cent in 2005.

But despite these gains, it is estimated that only 9 per cent of pregnant women with HIV in low- and middle-income countries in 2005 were receiving ARVs to prevent transmission, an increase from 3 per cent in 2003.

The report notes particular momentum in treating children living with HIV/AIDS, a result of improved testing, better health worker skills, lower drug prices and simpler formulations. Several countries, including Botswana, India, Rwanda, South Africa and Thailand, have been able to scale up HIV treatment of children by integrating it into treatment sites for adults.

Globally, only one in 10 children needing antiretroviral treatment receives it. Only 4 per cent of children born to HIV-infected mothers receive prophylactic treatment to prevent opportunistic infections that can be fatal.

Prices of ARV drugs for children have come down dramatically over the past 12 to 18 months. The Clinton Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative negotiated a reduction in the cost of paediatric ARVs to less than $0.16 per day, or $60 per year, helping to spur competition in the development of paediatric formulations.

The report notes that prevention responses are focussing strategies on adolescents and young people most at risk. This group includes young women; globally, a higher number of young women are being infected than men. In Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya, for example, there are five infected young women for every infected young man.

New evidence suggests that declining HIV prevalence in Kenya, urban areas of Côte d’Ivoire, Malawi and Zimbabwe, and in rural areas of Botswana, has resulted from the adoption of safer sexual behaviour by young people. In more than 70 countries surveyed, testing and use of counselling services increased from roughly 4 million people in 2001 to 16.5 million in 2005.

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14 November, 2006

REGIONAL APPROACH KEY TO FIGHT HIV/AIDS IN HORN OF AFRICA, UN-BACKED MEETING TOLD

Horn of Africa countries, meeting to combat the alarming spread of HIV/AIDS in a region that has around 2 million people suffering from the disease, have agreed to work together for prevention, according to a joint United Nations effort set up to tackle the scourge.

“Due to the high level of mobility in the Horn of Africa, important population groups consistently remain outside the reach of national efforts to address HIV/AIDS,” the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) said in a press release, referring to a consensus reached by eight Horn of Africa countries and regions meeting in Somaliland.

“It is imperative that we jointly respond to HIV vulnerability among mobile populations and the host populations with whom they interact.”

The three-day meeting to discuss enhanced regional cooperation in fighting the disease began yesterday and involves officials from Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, north and south Sudan, Somaliland, Puntland and south central Somalia, as well as international partners and other officials.

The Horn of Africa faces myriad humanitarian and public health concerns and, located at the crossroads of the Middle East and Africa and with a population of around 130 million, the region is characterized by socio-political and historical links as well as mobility between countries.

“The notion of physical borders between countries in the Horn is somewhat of a misnomer given the daily unchecked movement over the porous border crossings. HIV/AIDS knows no borders,” said Leo Kenny, UNAIDS Country Coordinator for Somalia.

The meeting, which is taking place in Hargeisa, follows an initial gathering in Djibouti in July at which the AIDS Commissions and international partners agreed to form a regional partnership on HIV/AIDS.

During the current discussions, participants are expected to agree on a framework of immediate action for the most vulnerable groups, a regional coordination mechanism and a monitoring and evaluation plan, UNAIDS said.

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30 October, 2006

UN HEALTH AGENCY LAUNCHES INITIATIVE TO FIGHT CORRUPTION IN MEDICINES PROCUREMENT

With up to $50 billion spent every year on pharmaceutical products and recent estimates showing that as much as 25 per cent of procured medicines can be lost to fraud, bribery and other corrupt practices, the United Nations health agency today launched a new initiative to help governments combat corruption.

“Corruption is a worldwide problem, rife in high- and low-income countries alike, and no country should feel embarrassed to talk about it,” UN World Health Organization (WHO) Director of Medicines Policy and Standards Hans Hogerzeil said of the scheme to set up a group of anti-corruption and medicines experts from international institutions and countries to promote greater transparency in regulation and procurement.

“Low income countries are the most vulnerable, and they are the ones we will initially support in promoting more transparent, money-saving tactics,” he added at a two-day meeting beginning in Geneva today to set out strategies and set up the initiative.

Before reaching the patients who need them, medicines change hands several times in the complex production and distribution chain, providing ample opportunity for corruption, WHO noted. A recent report by Transparency International, a global civil society organization, revealed that in one country, the value of two out of three medicines supplied through procurement was lost to corruption and fraud in hospitals.

“This is an aberration when you think that poor populations struggle with the double bind of a high burden of disease and low access to medical products,” WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Technology and Pharmaceuticals Howard Zucker said. “Countries need to deal with this problem and ensure that the precious resources devoted to health are being well spent.”

Apart from the loss of resources and the danger posed to patients’ lives, corrupt practices also allow the entry into the medicines chain of counterfeit and substandard products, further endangering the health of communities, WHO noted.

Corruption occurs at different stages of the chain and may take on different forms ranging from bribery of government officials to register medicines without the required information and deliberate delays by officials to solicit bribes, to favouritism rather than professional merit in selecting members of registration committees and thefts and embezzlement in the distribution chain, including in health care facilities.

To combat the problem, WHO plans to strengthen regulatory authorities and procurement practices by stimulating legislative reform to establish laws against corruption and appropriate enforcement and punitive measures, and promoting standardized systems of checks and balances to prevent abuse by making publicly available criteria for selecting regulatory and procurement staff and medical products.

The agency will also encourage ethical practices through behaviour change activities and staff training.

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23 October, 2006

GLOBAL VIGILANCE IS NEEDED TO COUNTER BIRD FLU, INDONESIA CAUSES CONCERN: UN COORDINATOR

While the deadly bird flu virus has not spread as widely as feared in Africa, vigilance is still needed across the world to counter its advance and deal with its impact on humans, the United Nations coordinator for the disease said today, expressing in particular “very great concern” over Indonesia, where practically the whole country has been affected.

“The situation with regard to avian influenza in the world is that in 2006 we did see more than 30 countries reporting outbreaks. The disease didn’t spread quite so profoundly in Africa as we had expected it might… but still the amount of viral outbreaks in 2006 were many greater than any previous year,” Dr. David Nabarro, the Senior UN System Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza told reporters in New York.

“Unfortunately the virus continues to affect humans: there are 256 people known to be affected, 151 dying and the rate of human death is still distressingly high, with Indonesia increasingly becoming the country which causes all of us… very great concern.”

There have been 43 deaths out of 53 human cases so far in Indonesia this year, a significant proportion of the 73 human deaths recorded worldwide since the start of 2006, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) reports, noting that the Asian region has been hardest hit by the virus, which spreads through contact with infected birds.

However experts fear that the H5N1 virus could mutate, gaining the ability to pass from person to person and in a worst case scenario unleashing a deadly human pandemic. Dr. Nabarro warned that it will remain a “major animal health issue” for years.

“We think it’s going to stay that way for five years perhaps 10 years to come because the virus is highly pathogenic yet at the same time can seem to survive in certain communities of birds without symptoms… and secondly it does seem to be spread by a combination of wild birds and trade.”

Dr. Nabarro, who has just returned from a fact-finding trip to Australia, Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar, said in order to deal with such a long-term problem, which has already forced the culling of hundreds of millions of poultry to curb the disease’s spread, it will mean changes to commercial bird rearing and also better preparedness to deal with outbreaks.

Already such changes are taking place, he said, praising countries responses to the disease, including better preparation and improved veterinarian services; however more needed to be done, especially in Indonesia.

“Indonesia has the virus probably in 30 out of 33 provinces… now Indonesia has had to move fast to completely redesign its animal health services… the Government certainly is committed together with the UN to making this happen but… still there’s such a lot to be done.”

Stressing the need for continuous vigilance, Dr. Nabarro also highlighted the importance of being better prepared for any human outbreaks worldwide and noted in particular a call by the WHO today for more action and funding to prepare for this and other pandemic influenzas.

“We’ve seen big efforts by the World Health Organization (WHO) working with Governments to make sure that we’ve got a containment system in place and WHO today releasing its Global Action Plan for vaccine development, so that if a pandemic does appear we’ve got a better supply of vaccines in place to deal with this,” he said.

The new plan, based on advice from more than 120 immunization and other experts, warns that the world is far short of the amount of vaccine needed to counter an outbreak of pandemic influenza should it break out and it urges immediate action to remedy this.

“We are presently several billion doses short of the amount of pandemic influenza vaccine we would need to protect the global population. This situation could lead to a public health crisis,” said Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, Director, WHO Initiative for Vaccine Research.

“The Global Action Plan sets the course for what needs to be done, starting now, to increase vaccine production capacity and close the gap. In just three to five years we could begin to see results that could save many lives in case of a pandemic.”

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17 October, 2006

UN HEALTH TASK FORCE OUTLINES STEPS TO FIGHT DRUG-RESISTANT TUBERCULOSIS

With the emergence of extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB) posing a serious threat to public health, particularly when associated with HIV, the United Nations health agency today called on countries to immediately strengthen their control of the disease.

Announcing the results of last week’s first meeting of its Global Task Force on XDR-TB, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) also outlined plans to help mobilize teams that can respond to requests for technical assistance from countries and be deployed at short notice to XDR-TB risk areas.

“It is critical that urgent steps are taken to address XDR-TB, especially in areas of high HIV prevalence,” WHO Acting Director-General Anders Nordström told the Task Force at its meeting in Geneva on 9 and 10 October.
“At the same time we should not lose sight of the need to make long-standing improvements to strengthen TB control, and build the necessary capacity in health services to respond to drug-resistant tuberculosis.”

The Task Force also made specific recommendations on drug-resistant TB surveillance methods and laboratory capacity measures; implementing infection control measures to protect patients, health care workers and visitors, particularly those who are HIV infected; and access to second-line anti-TB and antiretroviral drugs for countries.

It also called for information-sharing strategies related to XDR-TB prevention, control, and treatment, including co-management with antiretroviral therapy; and research and development of new TB drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tests.

WHO and Task Force members will now coordinate with national and international partners involved in TB, as well as HIV prevention, care and treatment, to take the recommendations forward. They will also develop a plan that identifies the resources required to implement these outcomes and the overall emergency response.

Drug-resistant TB has emerged as an increasing threat to TB control but a WHO/United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention study published earlier this year documented for the first time cases of tuberculosis that were extensively resistant to current drug treatments.
XDR-TB was identified in all regions of the world, though it is still thought to be relatively uncommon.

Last month concerns were heightened by reports from KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa of high mortality rates in HIV-positive people with XDR-TB, leading to warnings that XDR-TB could seriously threaten the considerable progress being made in countries on TB control and the scaling up of universal access to HIV treatment and prevention.

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27 September, 2006

INEQUITABLE HEALTH CARE RIFE IN THE AMERICAS, ACCORDING TO NEW UN REPORT

Unequal access to services and disparities between rural and urban areas continue to mar the health systems in North and South America and the Caribbean, according to the latest United Nations report on the issue.

“The search for equity in health is one of the main objectives,” Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Mirta Roses said in presenting her annual report to the organization's 47th Directing Council currently meeting in Washington.

The report focuses on closing the gaps in health in the least protected populations in the Americas, especially in areas where poverty is highly concentrated in relation to disadvantaged groups such as women, children, indigenous populations, young people and the elderly.

“In far too many countries, unnecessary poor health conditions persist” and evidence shows there are a number of cost-effective interventions to improve health conditions, PAHO’s former Director George Alleyne told the region’s Health Ministers today.

Dr. Alleyne is an editor of the Disease Control Priorities project, which deals with such issues as tobacco use, cardiovascular disease, maternal and newborn mortality, and the reduction of infectious diseases, such as TB, malaria and HIV/AIDS.

The Western hemisphere continues to show inequities in resource allocation and the design and implementation of health policies, according to PAHO, which is the regional office for the Americas of the UN World Health Organization (WHO).

The report notes advances in policy making and strengthening operating capacity, and outlines examples of progress in reaching disadvantaged groups such as pregnant mothers and newborns, strengthening primary care and broadening access to health and nutrition, and protecting the health of children and adolescents and preventing youth violence.

Other initiatives noted are strengthening gender equality, reducing stigma and discrimination against people affected by HIV/AIDS, protecting the disabled, improving health care for the elderly, and advancing programs to protect against and mitigate the impact of disasters.

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13 September, 2006

UN IMMUNIZATION DRIVE IN AFGHANISTAN AIMS TO REDUCE CHILD AND MATERNAL DEATHS

A newly launched United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) immunization campaign in Afghanistan aims to reduce child measles mortality by 90 per cent and to eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus.

Overall, Afghanistan’s infant mortality rate is alarmingly high at over 25 per cent, according to the agency. Measles is a major cause of child death, and tetanus – which often results from unsanitary conditions at delivery – is a leading killer of mothers and their newborn babies.

In the complex immunization effort now under way, more than 4 million children under five will be vaccinated against measles and an estimated 4.2 million women of child bearing age are to receive tetanus vaccine, UNICEF said in a press release. Mothers who have been vaccinated will pass on tetanus immunity to their children for the first nine months of life.

Remote provinces such as Bamyan are being targeted by the campaign. Located in mountainous central Afghanistan, Bamyan poses a security and access challenge for vaccinators.

“Some children live in remote mountain villages that are hard to reach because the country lacks a transportation infrastructure,” said UNICEF health advisor Agostino Paganini. “There are also gender issues. Even now, many women are wary of moving around freely, so we need to be very culturally sensitive.”

The people of Bamyan have limited access to health care, and the province’s child and maternal mortality rates are among the world’s highest.

UNICEF and its partners are supplying vaccines and training for health care workers to travel to remote regions such as Bamyan in the current campaign.
Temporary immunization posts are set up in village centres, where children get their measles vaccinations. Teams then go from house to house to immunize women against tetanus.

The immunization drive is expected to cover all of Afghanistan in phases, starting with hard-to-reach areas in nine provinces. Vaccination teams plan to visit these provinces before November – when snow will likely block the roads – before proceeding to the second phase, which encompasses another 25 provinces.

Diseases such as measles and tetanus can be easily prevented, and UNICEF said Afghanistan’s dual campaign to fight these diseases will ensure healthier lives for children and their mothers.

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21 August, 2006

BIRD FLU A THREAT TO SOUTHERN BALKANS, CAUCASUS REGION, WARNS UN AGENCY

Despite successful efforts to contain the spread of the deadly H5N1 virus, avian flu poses a threat to a growing number of countries, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which says the Caucasus and southern Balkans are now considered “high-risk” areas.

“The region is not only a prime resting ground for migratory bird species, but poultry production is mostly characterized by rural and household husbandry with little in terms of biosecurity and strong regulatory inspection,” says Juan Lubroth, head of FAO’s Emergency Prevention System for Transboundary Animal Diseases.

The FAO says bird flu has been confirmed in 55 countries in Africa, Asia and Europe, up from 45 just four months ago, though the rate of infection among poultry has slowed in most countries.

“We don’t expect to eradicate the H5N1 virus from possible wild bird reservoirs, but we can contain and control it fully in the poultry sector, which is the best insurance we have that it will not mutate into a virus that is easily transmissible among humans,” says Joseph Domenech, Chief Veterinary Officer of FAO.

For that to happen, however, he says veterinary and laboratory services need to be improved in poorer countries, where a general lack of funds hampers public services.

“Just like a chain with a weak link, we need to find the weak links in the global effort to contain H5N1 and strengthen them,” says Mr. Domenech.

The virus has killed 140 people worldwide since 2002, including 63 so far this year, according to the World Health Organization. More than 220 million birds have died from the virus or been killed in culling activities aimed at stopping the spread of the disease.

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16 August, 2006

MILESTONE REACHED IN HIV TREATMENT ACCESS IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA, WHO REPORTS

The number of people receiving HIV antiretroviral therapy in sub-Saharan Africa has surpassed the one million mark for the first time, but much work remains to be done to reach the goal of providing universal access to prevention, treatment and care by 2010, said a UN health care agency official at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto today.

The one million figure represents a tenfold increase since December 2003, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Sub-Saharan Africa still accounts for 70 per cent of the global unmet treatment need, however, and
95 per cent of the 38.6 million people living with HIV/AIDS live in the developing world, where countries face tremendous challenges in dealing with the epidemic.

“In many ways we are still at the beginning of this effort,” said Dr. Kevin De Cock, WHO’s HIV/AIDS Director. “We have reached just one quarter of the people in need in low and middle-income countries, and the number of those who need treatment will continue to grow.”

The WHO notes that many nations are suffering “crippling” shortages of HIV-related health workers, many of whom are either becoming infected themselves or leaving for better-paying jobs in larger cities and wealthier countries.

“The shortage of health workers is devastating public health systems, particularly in the developing world,” said Dr. Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, Assistant Director-General of WHO. “It is one of the most significant challenges we face in preventing and treating HIV.”

Some 57 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, need more than four million HIV-related health care workers to fill the gap, the WHO estimates. To confront the problem, the agency has launched, in collaboration with the International Labour Organization and the International Organization for Migration, a new plan called “Treat, Train, Retain”.

The initiative is aimed at providing health care workers themselves with access to HIV/AIDS services while at the same time helping countries increase the number of health workers, maximize their efficiency and retain them.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is calling attention to the fact that millions of people still lack access to the most basic and available method for preventing HIV – the male and female condom.

“People are getting infected now,” said Steve Kraus, Chief of the HIV Branch of UNFPA, in a statement. He noted that promising new technology is on the horizon but will not be widely available for years. “The condom already exists and it hasn’t been delivered. It works and represents the best tool we have in the fight against HIV/AIDS.”

The UNFPA points out that, in sub-Saharan Africa, men have access to only 10 condoms on average per year, while the eight to 10 million condoms being used in low- and middle-income countries represent only half of the total need.

At the same time, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) is highlighting food and nutritional support as an essential, and often overlooked, part of essential care for people living with and affected by HIV.

The WFP cites a new study by HIV Medicine, which found that such people most often list food as their greatest need and that patients who start new antiretroviral therapy while malnourished are six times as likely to die.

The WFP estimates that nearly one sixth of the people enrolled in antiretroviral programmes in 2008 will need some kind of nutritional support, which could be provided for a mere 65 cents (US) per patient per day.

"We cannot win the battle against AIDS by focusing on drugs alone,” said Robin Jackson, Chief of WFP's HIV/AIDS Service, at a press conference in Toronto today. “Funding antiretrovirals with no thought to food and nutrition is a little like paying a fortune to fix a car but not setting aside money to buy gas.”

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14 August, 2006

UN AGENCIES PRESENT PLAN TO BRING ESSENTIAL MEDICINES TO CHILDREN

With millions of children dying every year from treatable diseases, United Nations agencies have devised a plan aimed at increasing children’s access to essential medications.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) held a joint meeting in Geneva last week, where experts formed a strategy to expand access to child-focused formulations and improve the medicines and prescribing guidelines for the entire range of infant and child care needs.

"Children are often hailed as the hope and future of humanity, but they don't benefit enough from pharmaceutical research and technology," said Dr Howard Zucker, Assistant-Director General at the World Health Organization (WHO).

Some 10 million children die every year, many of them from diarrhoea, HIV/AIDS, malaria, respiratory tract infection or pneumonia. Effective treatments for these illnesses exist, but there is a lack of knowledge of how best to use such medicines in children, as well as a lack of paediatric formulations.

Under the plan, UNICEF’s supply division said it would work with industry to promote the development of paediatric formulations for HIV/AIDS medications. It also promised to work towards painless remedies, better-tasting medications and new mini-tablets to treat other diseases, as well as to emphasize the importance of climate zone considerations in creating and distributing new formulations.

The WHO’s Director for Medicines Policy and Standards, Hans Hogerzeil, said the agency would work towards ameliorating the cost of many medicines, especially “for children in resource-poor settings where there is enormous need.”

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24 July, 2006

ANNAN PRAISES PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANIES FOR EXTENDING HIV COMMITMENTS

Secretary-General Kofi Annan praised some of the world’s leading pharmaceutical and diagnostic companies for their commitments to expand access to HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention after meeting with their top executives at United Nations Headquarters today.

“I am pleased that the companies I met with today pledged to continue their efforts, in line with international commitments towards the goal of being as close as possible to universal access by 2010,” Mr. Annan said following the meeting with executives of nine companies and the heads of a number of UN agencies, the first time manufacturers of generic drugs attended such a meeting.

Despite the significant advances in the five years since he first met with pharmaceutical company executives, Mr. Annan said the AIDS epidemic is “still outpacing our efforts and we need to work together in a broad partnership to step up the response.”

In that light, he said that the companies have committed individually to continue to review their product offerings and the prices of their existing and new HIV medications and diagnostics, especially for children, to make them more affordable, accessible and appropriate for use in low- and middle-income countries.

They have also agreed to register their HIV medications and diagnostics as widely as possible, increase investment in research, and give greater priority to the development of paediatric formulations of HIV medications and specific diagnostic tools for children.

While affirming the importance of intellectual property rights, they said they would continue to develop arrangements with third-party manufacturers for licences and technology transfers to make HIV medications and diagnostics more affordable and accessible.

Mr. Annan said participants also agreed on the role of the UN system in a number of areas, including work on the removal of import duties on HIV medications and diagnostics, and the development of guidelines on diagnosis, treatment, product quality and forecasting of needs

In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children’s Fund
(UNICEF) committed themselves to step up efforts to expand the pre-qualification programme of urgently needed medicines and diagnostics.

“These commitments are all of vital importance,” Mr. Annan said. “But given the scale of the challenge, they are not sufficient in themselves,” he said in describing other efforts that will be made by participants to identify further measures needed.

From the UN system, the participants included: Kemal Dervis, Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP); Ann Veneman, Executive Director of UNICEF; Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS); and Anders Nordström, acting Director-General of WHO.

Participating pharmaceutical and diagnostic companies included Aspen Pharmacare, Aurobindo Pharma, Becton Dickinson, Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Hetero Drugs, Johnson & Johnson, Merck & Company and Ranbaxy Laboratories Limited.

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11 July, 2006

UN COMMISSION ADOPTS NEW LIMITS ON DISEASE-CAUSING CONTAMINANTS IN FOOD

Measures to keep cancer-causing and other toxic contaminants, such as led and cadmium, out of the human food chain have advanced a step further with the adoption of new limits by a United Nations commission that is the world’s highest body on food standards.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission, a joint venture of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN World Health Organization (WHO), which ended its latest session on 7 July, set new maximum allowable levels of a number of key contaminants and additives. These include lead in fish, which can cause a wide range of disorders, including anaemia and hepatic and neurological disorders, and cadmium in rice, marine bivalve molluscs and cephalopods, which can cause kidney damage.

The meeting also set new codes of practice for reducing aflatoxin contamination in Brazil nuts, and dioxin and dioxin-like PCB contamination in food and feed that will help countries take measures to protect consumers from exposure to these substances.

Codex also created a task force to address antimicrobial resistance in food of animal origin, developing risk assessment policies and strategies to reduce food safety risks associated with certain uses in animal production, including aquaculture. The incorrect use of antibiotics in animals can lead to drug resistance in infections in humans who eat their meat.

“This has been an extraordinarily productive session, attended by a record number of 110 countries and approximately 400 delegates,” Codex Commission Chairperson Claude Mosha of Tanzania said.

“We have passed a range of standards which will make a substantial difference in the safety and quality of the food people eat. In addition, people in developing countries will have the ability to earn better livings through trading these foods internationally,” he added.

Codex Alimentarius standards form the basis of food legislation in many countries and are recognized as international benchmarks by one of the multilateral agreements of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

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10 July, 2006

5 MILLION KENYAN CHILDREN BENEFIT FROM UN-BACKED MEASLES VACCINATION CAMPAIGN

More than 5 million Kenyan children between nine months and five years of age are being vaccinated against measles in a two-phase United Nations-backed integrated campaign that is also providing polio immunizations and insecticide-treated nets against malaria in some districts as well as vitamin A and de-worming medicine.

“The Kenya campaign was accelerated to protect children from a recent measles outbreak, the re-emergence of polio in Somalia, and the effects of a severe drought,” UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Regional Director for East and Southern Africa Per Engeback said. “The drought led to a food crisis that increased malnutrition in children, making them even more susceptible to measles.”

The Government campaign, the first phase of which was launched in April after an outbreak infected 1,600 people, 42 of them fatally, is being supported by the Measles Initiative, a partnership led by the American Red Cross, UN Foundation, UN World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Kenya’s immunization programme sets a good example in disease outbreak response,” WHO/AFRO Regional Director Luis Gomes Sambo said. “Upon realizing that the country was facing a serious threat of measles and polio, Kenya promptly responded by launching a commendable two-stage vaccination campaign to protect more than 5 million children.”

Before Kenya began intensive measles control activities with a Measles Initiative-supported campaign in 2002, the disease was a major cause of childhood death and disability. That campaign successfully reached more than 97 per cent of the target and, since 2002, the number of reported measles cases in Kenya has decreased to fewer than 100 per year, prior to the recent outbreak.

Over a five year period, the Measles Initiative has supported more than 40 African countries in successfully vaccinating 213 million children and saving the lives of an estimated 1.2 million.

Through the Initiative’s financial and technical support and the commitment of African governments, measles deaths in Africa fell by 60 per cent between 1999 and 2004. This decline reflects significant progress toward the goal of reducing measles deaths worldwide by 90 per cent by 2010.

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BIRD FLU WILL REMAIN A THREAT FOR YEARS TO COME, EXPERTS WARN AT UN SPECIAL MEETING

While bird flu has been successfully checked in Western Europe and much of Southeast Asia apart from Indonesia, it is still expanding in Africa and will remain a threat for years to come, with the number of countries affected doubling to 60 in just the two months from February to April, United Nations officials said today.

“In the majority of cases, wherever HPAI [highly pathogenic avian influenza] has made its appearance we, the global community and the countries concerned have been able to stop it in its tracks,” UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Deputy Director-General David Harcharik told a high-level meeting of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on the disease in Geneva.
But, he warned at a Council special event on bird flu, “HPAI poses a continuing threat and we must brace ourselves to go on fighting it, quite likely for years.”

Mr. Harcharik stressed that it was imperative to act quickly and decisively to stop HPAI wherever it appeared because so long as the H5N1 virus causing it stayed in circulation it would remain a threat to the international community. H5N1 had not so far mutated into a form transmittable from one human being to another, but should it do so, the result could be a pandemic of vast proportions, he said.

There have so far been only 229 confirmed human cases, 131 of them fatal, since the current outbreak started in South East Asia in December 2003, nearly all of them ascribed to contact with infected birds, according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO).

But since its onset experts have voiced concern that the virus could mutate and gain the ability to pass easily from human to human. The so-called Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, also starting from a bird flu virus, is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people worldwide by the time it run its course two years later.

UN senior Influenza Coordinator David Nabarro said wealthy donor nations, the European Union and others must understand that giving funds to poor nations to help them prepare for a possible bird flu pandemic is in their self-interest “as the avian flu knew no borders.”

Bird flu is “not science fiction, but a very real and dangerous threat that was not restricted to H5N1 as there are a variety of pathogens stemming from the animal kingdom that can threaten human security,” he added.

Mr Harcharik said HPAI was still a source of concern in Indonesia and continued to spread in Africa, where it risked becoming endemic in several countries. He cited difficulties in enforcing appropriate control measures such as culling, farmer compensation and checks on animal movements in African countries. Another complication was illegal trade in poultry.

“Until such trade is effectively checked by stronger official veterinary authorities, and until better surveillance, alert-response, diagnostics and reporting is achieved, the risk will remain with us,” he added said.

In the two and half years of the present emergency, some 200 million poultry have been culled, causing losses of $10 billion in Southeast Asia alone.

ECOSOC President Ali Hachani noted that since February, the virus had dramatically expanded its geographical footprint. Between February and early April, 32 countries in Africa, Europe and the Middle East had reported infection in migratory or domestic birds, twice the number affected during the previous two and a half years.

“It is up to all of us to reverse this trend by committing to rapid effective and efficient action,” he said. “Funds pledged by donor countries should be disbursed with no further delay.” He stressed the specific role the UN has to play in supporting countries - setting standards monitoring progress, providing technical assistance and, when country capacity is limited, providing essential services.

Challenges still to be faced include functional coordination between animal and human health sectors, more effective mass communications and improved incentives to individuals and groups so that they report cases of disease and receive compensation for poultry that are culled as part of the control effort.

Such challenges are greatest in the poorest countries, principally in Africa, where scarce technical capacity and resources inhibit the operation of adequate veterinary and public health infrastructure.

WHO Assistant Director-General for Communicable Diseases Margaret Chan said her agency had carried out 50 country missions to assess the extent of the disease and to provide technical assistance.

UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) representative Katherine Rooney noted that in the event of a pandemic the ICAO would need rapid answers to such questions as what screening measures were required at airports for travellers and cargo.

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20 June, 2006

UN-BACKED MEASLES IMMUNIZATION DRIVE PASSES 1-MILLION MARK IN SOUTHERN SUDAN

A massive United Nations-backed campaign to stop deadly outbreaks of measles in Southern Sudan has passed a key milestone, with over 1 million children immunized since November in a region where less than 20 per cent of youngsters under five were vaccinated during the two decades of civil war that ended last year.

“This is the biggest public health initiative ever mounted in Southern Sudan and we congratulate all involved on reaching the 1 million mark,” UN World Health Organization (WHO) official Abdullahi Ahmed said of the campaign, which overall is targeting 4.5 million children under 15 across all 10 states of Southern Sudan.

The Mass Measles Campaign, a joint effort by the Federal Ministry of Health of the Government of Southern Sudan, WHO and the UN Children’s Fund
(UNICEF) still needs more than $2 million in urgent funding to complete the task.

The rolling campaign has now begun in Unity State. “We can celebrate the fact that 1 million Sudanese children are already safe from one of the most common killers in Southern Sudan,” UNICEF Director for Southern Sudan Simon Strachan said at a weekend launch ceremony in Bentiu, the state capital.
“But we need to keep pushing on to reach the goal of a measles-free Southern Sudan.”

Vaccination teams are already on the ground in the area around Bentiu and aim to reach 46,500 children in the county by the end of June.

During the war, thousands died annually of the disease. Despite major logistical and security challenges, since November the campaign completed the vaccination of about 1.08 million children in 13 counties in the states of Western Equatoria, Eastern Equatoria, Central Equatoria, Northern Bahr el Ghazal, Jonglei and Lakes.

Major donors to the campaign include the United States Centers for Disease Control, the UN Foundation (UNF) and the Governments of the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and Australia.

While most equipment and personnel are already on stream, urgent funding gaps remain for additional vaccines, social mobilization activities, cold chain equipment, transport and personnel costs. An additional $2.27 million is required to complete the campaign.

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12 June, 2006

WORLD MAKING SLOW PROGRESS TOWARD ENSURING SAFE BLOOD SUPPLY: UN HEALTH AGENCY

The world is making only slow progress towards the goal of 100 per cent safe, unpaid, voluntary blood donation, with most developing countries still depending on paid donors or family member donors, according to a new survey by the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO).

However, some countries such as China, Malaysia and India have shown progress in the last two years by applying stricter principles to blood donation within their AIDS prevention programmes, the WHO said today ahead of the full survey results to be published on World Blood Donor Day on Wednesday.

Regular, unpaid voluntary donors are the mainstay of a safe and sustainable blood supply because they are less likely to lie about their health status, WHO said. Evidence indicates that they are also more likely to keep themselves healthy. South Africa, for instance, has an HIV prevalence of 23.3 per cent in the adult population but only 0.03 per cent among its regular blood donors.

The survey shows that out of the 124 countries that provided data to the WHO, 56 saw an increase in unpaid voluntary donations. The remaining 68 have either made no progress or have seen a decline in the number of unpaid voluntary donors. Of the 124 countries, 49 have reached 100 per cent unpaid voluntary blood donations but out of these 49, only 17 are developing countries.

“The number of donations per 1000 population is about 15 times greater in high-income than in low-income countries,” WHO said in today’s release. “This is concerning because developing countries have an even greater need for sustained supplies of safe blood since many conditions requiring blood transfusions – such as severe malaria-related anaemia in children or serious pregnancy complications – are still claiming over one million lives every year.”

In the area of blood testing, 56 out of 124 countries did not screen all of their donated blood for HIV, hepatitis B and C and syphilis and the reasons given for this include scarcity or unaffordability of test kits, lack of infrastructure and shortage of trained staff.

However despite such poor findings, WHO said the survey did show some signs of progress. In particular, St. Lucia has made the biggest jump forward, going from 24.39 per cent of collected blood coming from unpaid volunteers in 2002 to just over 83 per cent in 2004, while Malaysia went from 50 per cent to 99 per cent and India from 45 per cent to 52.42 per cent.

According to Government responses to the WHO questionnaire, the reason for progress is tied to stronger AIDS prevention programmes.

In China , government figures show that all donated blood in 2005 was tested for the four infections, while in the area of blood donation, China has seen a rise of unpaid voluntary donors from 22 per cent in 1998 to 94.5 per cent last year. Much of China’s progress is due to its reduction of commercial blood and plasma, thus minimizing the practice of unregulated blood collection and provision throughout the country while also strengthening HIV prevention.

The WHO introduced the 100 per cent unpaid, voluntary blood donation policy in 1997. World Blood Donor Day, an annual event on June 14, is a day to help governments reach that target by creating awareness of the need for sustainable supplies of safe blood. It is also a day to thank existing blood donors for the remarkable gift they make to those whose lives they have improved or saved, and to encourage new donors to commit.

“Commitment” is the theme of this year’s World Blood Donor Day – commitment from regular and potential donors, but also from Governments and the global community, with the goal of keeping blood safety high on the agenda as a vital factor in treatment and disease prevention.

The global observance of World Blood Donor Day this year will take place in Bangkok, Thailand.

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30 May, 2006

FIGHT AGAINST AIDS HAS ACHIEVED IMPORTANT BUT UNEVEN GLOBAL PROGRESS – UN

In the most comprehensive report so far on the world’s progress in combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the main United Nations agency combating the disease says most countries have built a strong foundation on which to mount an effective response but new infections are continuing to increase in certain areas.

The study, called “Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic: A UNAIDS 10th Anniversary Special Edition” comes out on the eve of the 2006 High-Level Meeting on AIDS. A dozen heads of State, more than 100 cabinet ministers and about 1,000 representatives of civil society and the private sector are expected to gather in the General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York from 31 May to 2 June to discuss its findings.

“After a tragically late and slow start, the world’s response has gathered strength – as we saw at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS five years ago,” Secretary-General Kofi Annan says in the preface to the 630-page report, which was produced by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

“Since then, there has been remarkable progress in rallying political leadership, mobilizing financial and technical resources, bringing antiretroviral treatment to people the world over and even reversing the spread in some of the world’s poorest nations.”

UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot says in his introduction: “Even though the pandemic and its toll are outstripping the worst predictions, for the first time ever we have the will, means and knowledge needed to make real headway.

“Goals that seemed impossible to achieve just five years ago have been realized. There is robust political commitment today. In 40 developing countries, the national AIDS response is now personally led by heads of government or their deputies. Total financing for the response in developing countries rose fivefold between 2001 and 2005, reaching $8.3 billion in the last year.”

In more and more countries on every continent, AIDS epidemics are declining, proving concretely that “AIDS is a problem with a solution,” Dr. Piot says. “Thus, today the foundations exist for the world to mount a response commensurate with the challenge of stopping and reversing the pandemic.”

Noting that precise figures are impossible to collect, the report points out that, with 126 of the 191 UN member countries submitting data, an estimated 33.4 million to 46 million people were living with AIDS at the end of last year. An estimated 3.2 million to 6.2 million became newly infected and between 2.2 million and 3.3 million died of AIDS.

The proportion of people infected with HIV, or the prevalence rate, is believed to have peaked in the late 1990s and to have stabilized globally, even though several countries have been showing increases. But “the world’s failure to make proven prevention methods available to those who need them represents a remarkable missed opportunity.”

Some 25 years after the epidemic was first recognized, most people at risk of HIV infection have yet to be reached with HIV prevention methods, “as many policy-makers refrain from implementing approaches that have been shown to work,” the report says.

Globally, treatment alone would avert 9 million new HIV infections by the end of 2020, whereas simultaneous treatment and prevention would head off an estimated 29 million new HIV infections in the same time, it notes.

Courageous political leadership and strong prevention efforts have been successful in reversing the pandemic in Brazil, Thailand and Uganda and are now reducing the HIV prevalence rate in Cambodia, Zimbabwe, parts of Burkina Faso, Haiti, Kenya and Tanzania, the report says.

Building on the experience in Botswana, where the Government recommended in 2004 that diagnostic HIV testing become a routine part of medical checkups, UNAIDS advises offering the tests in clinics treating sexually transmitted infections (STIs), maternal health clinics, and at community-based health service settings where there is access to antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).

Among the geographical regions, Sub-Saharan Africa is still the worst affected, with an HIV prevalence rate of 6.1 per cent. Of that figure, Botswana’s rate is estimated at 24.1, Lesotho’s 23.2 per cent and South Africa’s 18.8 per cent, compared to 0.9 in Senegal. Among young people, the female to male rate of infection is 3:1, and the report calls for several empowering measures for young women and girls, including an older minimum age for marriage.

The Caribbean, the world’s second most affected region, has a rate of 1.6 per cent, with Haiti coming in at about 3.8 per cent. Cuba’s rate, “an anomaly in the region,” is 0.1 per cent, with mother-to-child transmission found in only 100 babies. Other regions’ rates range from 0.3 per cent in Oceania to 0.8 per cent in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

At the launch of the report at UN Headquarters, Dr. Piot was joined by the heads of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) representing the 10 co-sponsoring agencies of UNAIDS.

UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid noted that prevention remained the most effective line of defence, but situations in which women in some countries were powerless to refuse the demands of infected husbands had to be changed.

Saying that children were too often the missing face of the pandemic, UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman called for programmes to reduce mother-to-child transmission, as well as better treatment of paediatric AIDS.

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25 May, 2006

NO EASY HUMAN-TO-HUMAN TRANSMISSION OF BIRD FLU YET FOUND – UN HEALTH AGENCY

Although human contagion cannot be ruled out in a family cluster of bird flu cases in Indonesia, the United Nations health agency has so far found no evidence that “efficient” human-to-human transmission has occurred, a development that would signal a potentially dangerous mutation of the virus into a deadly pandemic.

But the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and the Indonesia Health Ministry are concerned about the situation in Kubu Sembelang in North Sumatra and have intensified investigation and response activities there.

Priority is now being given to the search for additional cases of the illness in other family members, close contacts, and the general community after seven members of an extended family became infected with the H5N1 virus, six of them fatally, WHO said in its latest update.

All confirmed cases in the cluster can be directly linked to close and prolonged exposure to a patient during a phase of severe illness. Although human-to-human transmission cannot be ruled out, the search for a possible alternative source of exposure is continuing.

Although more than 200 million birds have died worldwide from either the virus or preventive culling, there have so far been only 218 human cases, 124 of them fatal, since the current outbreak started in South East Asia in December 2003, and these have been ascribed to contact with infected birds.

But experts fear the virus could mutate, gaining the ability to pass from person to person and, in a worst case scenario, unleashing a deadly human pandemic. The so-called Spanish flu pandemic that broke out in 1918 is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people worldwide by the time it had run its course two years later.

In a related development, some 300 scientists from over 100 nations will gather in Rome next week for a two-day meeting to try and shed light on one of the most controversial aspects of the H5N1: how far wild birds are to blame for spreading the virus.

The 30-31 May conference organized by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the inter-governmental World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), will seek to determine just what role wild birds, as opposed to domestic poultry, play in propagating the disease.

The main problem, according to FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech, is that no one knows for sure whether wild birds can act as long-term reservoirs of such viruses.

“Where they are not reservoirs but only victims of contamination from poultry, then prevention has to remain at the domestic bird level,” he said. “But where they are, we have to find out which birds are involved and where they migrate to in order to prevent other wild birds and poultry being infected.”

While it has been demonstrated that migrating birds can carry the virus over long distances - in Siberia, Eastern and Western Europe for example - it is not clear where the infection originated, although most scientists point the finger at domestic fowl.

In the early spring, it was feared that there would be large-scale outbreaks in Africa. And though bird flu did hit six African countries, this was less than expected and there was no evidence to link the outbreaks with wild birds. Similarly, widespread new cases were feared in Europe but largely failed to materialize.

“Lots of questions remain without answers,” Mr. Domenech said. “We therefore need to increase research and surveillance to better understand the epidemiology of the disease.”

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24 May, 2006

UN TO HOST MAJOR REVIEW OF GLOBAL RESPONSE TO AIDS

More than a dozen Heads of State and Government, over 100 Ministers, as well as more than a thousand representatives of civil society and the private sector are set to gather at United Nations Headquarters in New York next week for a major review of international efforts to fight AIDS in what officials at the world body today said would be marked by unprecedented action.

The 2006 High Level Meeting on AIDS due to take place from 31 May to 2 June will also include a person living with HIV who will address the General Assembly, delegates close to the process said.

Other speakers include the President of the General Assembly, Jan Eliasson, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, Dr. Peter Piot, and Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who will present a report on progress achieved in realizing the targets agreed by UN Member States in the historic Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS, adopted in 2001 at the UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS.

The meeting will also identify common challenges to scaling-up and sustaining national AIDS responses. Delegates will consider recommendations on how to intensify HIV prevention, treatment, care and support with the aim of coming as close as possible to the goal of universal access to treatment by 2010 for all those who need it.

Nearly 800 civil society groups have been granted special accreditation to the meeting, an unprecedented number for such a gathering, and many more are expected to attend as part of organizations already accredited to the UN or as part of national delegations, the officials said. A hearing will be held to provide an opportunity for civil society to exchange views with Member States.

The meeting will also feature a series of panel discussions as well as roundtables on a range of critical topics, including financing a scaled-up AIDS response and overcoming stigma and discrimination. Building on these discussions, a political declaration will be adopted at the close of the meeting on 2 June. Officials said today that agreement is close on the key points, though language on financial assistance has yet to be approved.

An Evening of Remembrance and Hope: Uniting the World Against AIDS will take place 1 June in the General Assembly Hall. The event will remember the 25 years of AIDS and the heroes who have shaped the AIDS response.

In addition to UN officials, the event will see the participation of numerous celebrities, including Noerine Kaleeba, Naomi Watts, Iryna Borisheck, Mary Fisher and Whoopi Goldberg. The event will also include performances by Wyclef Jean, Salman Ahmad, the African Children’s Choir and Angelique Kidjo.

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22 May, 2006

HEAD OF UN WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION, LEE JONG-WOOK, DIES AGED 61

Lee Jong-wook, Director-General of the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO), who made the fight against HIV/AIDS a hallmark of his tenure and led global preparations for a possible human bird flu pandemic, died today after a short illness, aged 61.

“The world has lost a great man today,” Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a tribute to the Republic of Korea expert, who throughout his 23-year career at WHO made a difference in every programme he managed, whether leading the charge to eradicate polio from the Western Pacific, or launching a cutting edge Global Drug Facility so that people would have access to tuberculosis medicines.

“Lee Jong-wook was a man of conviction and passion. He was a strong voice for the right of every man, woman and child to health prevention and care, and advocated on behalf of the very poorest people,” Mr. Annan added. “He tackled the most difficult problems head on, while upholding the highest principles. He will be very gravely missed, but history will mark Lee Jong-wook’s many contributions to public health.”

Dr. Lee, who became Director-General of the 192-member WHO in July 2003 in succession to former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, had been in hospital in Geneva since Saturday afternoon, where he underwent surgery to remove a blood clot on his brain. He remained in intensive care and declared dead at 7.43 a.m. this morning. Dr Anders Nordström, currently Assistant Director-General for General Management, will serve as Acting Director-General.

“The sudden loss of our leader, colleague and friend, is devastating,” the agency said in a statement.

In his tribute Mr. Annan recalled that he spoke with Dr. Lee just a few days ago. “Our conversation touched upon WHO’s long-running efforts to tackle the global challenge of HIV/AIDS – an area that he was particularly committed to – as well as the Roll Back Malaria campaign,” he said.

“He was at the forefront of the global fight to prevent an avian flu pandemic, and was a champion as well in the battle against a host of other public health threats from HIV/AIDS to tuberculosis.”

While personally a modest man, Dr. Lee was a bold leader. When he became Director-General, he took a risk and announced that WHO would work with partners to achieve “3 by 5” – to ensure 3 million people with HIV/AIDS would have access to the medicines they needed by the end of 2005.

The programme transformed the way leaders thought about AIDS medicines for people in poor countries and while the world fell short of the target, the successes and momentum of “3 by 5” demonstrated that universal access to medicines was possible – and had become a moral imperative.

A few days before his death, Dr Lee explained his vision of “universal access” to staff in his office as he worked on his speech to the World Health Assembly beginning in Geneva today.

“There can be no ‘comfort level’ in the fight against HIV,” he said. “We must keep up the pressure to get prevention, treatment and care linked and working. A key outcome of “3 by 5” was the commitment to universal access to treatment by 2010.

“But what does universal access mean? To me, this means that no one should die because they can’t get drugs. It means that no one will miss being tested, diagnosed, treated and cared for because there aren't clinics.”

As WHO Director-General, he led global efforts to tackle avian influenza and to prepare for a human influenza pandemic. Pointing to the health, social and economic devastation of historical influenza pandemics, he stressed repeatedly that every head of state should ensure their country developed a national pandemic preparation plan.

He personally met with many heads of state, including United States President George Bush, President Jacques Chirac of France, and President Hu Jintao of China.

Underscoring the recognition of his role, Dr. Lee was invited by Russian President Vladimir Putin to speak at the G8 Summit of top industrial countries in July in St. Petersburg, where the fight against infectious disease is one of three major items on the agenda.

Dr. Lee, who had very wide-ranging intellectual interests and in his spare moments enjoyed classical music, the theatre, reading Shakespeare and other great literature, is survived by his wife and son, two brothers and a sister and their families.

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15 May, 2006

EASTERN EUROPE/CENTRAL ASIA FACE WORLD’S MOST RAPIDLY EXPANDING AIDS EPIDEMIC – UN

With 270,000 people newly infected with HIV in 2005 alone, the Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) region faces the world’s most rapidly expanding AIDS epidemic, and treatment and preventive measures must be urgently boosted, United Nations officials said today.

“AIDS is one of the greatest challenges facing Eastern Europe and Central Asia today,” the Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Peter Piot told the first regional AIDS conference in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which opened today in Moscow.

“Fear and stigma are truly the best friends of HIV. To get ahead of the epidemic, stigma and discrimination must be tackled head-on, and HIV prevention and treatment services must be urgently scaled up,” he said in his keynote address.

An estimated 1.6 million people are living with the disease across the region, and in several countries the epidemic shows signs of crossing from groups most at risk into the general population.

A significant increase in both financial resources and political commitment over the past two years suggest that the pieces are falling into place for regional and international partners to effectively tackle the epidemic.
National health spending in many countries of the region is beginning to expand. Domestic spending on AIDS in Russia is slated to increase by 20times in 2006 to over $100 million. In 2005, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin established HIV prevention as a national priority.

“In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, we have the opportunity to stem the growth of AIDS before it becomes a catastrophe,” the Executive Director of the UN-backed Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Richard Feachem, told a news conference. “The Global Fund is investing heavily to assist the region in facing this challenge, and is fully committed to rapid scale up of programs in the region.”

In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the Fund is now the largest external donor for efforts to prevent and treat HIV and tuberculosis, having already committed more than $700 million in the region. A significant investment of up to $300 million is being made in Russia, which has increased its domestic spending on HIV in parallel.

While Global Fund-financed programmes in the region are still young, by the end of 2005, they had reached more than 2.1 million people with AIDS prevention activities and provided HIV testing and counselling for more than 700,000 people - an essential measure for both preventing and treating the disease. In addition, these programs had brought 3,200 people onto antiretroviral treatment regimens and delivered care and support to 17,000 orphans and other vulnerable children.

In a related development, renowned British actress and Oscar nominee Naomi Watts, star of such internationally-acclaimed films as King Kong, The Ring,
21 Grams, and Mulholland Drive, has been appointed a Special UNAIDS Representative and will use her talent and profile to raise AIDS awareness and give greater voice to the needs of people living with HIV worldwide.

“Given the stark reality, I can no longer stand on the sidelines, so I’m grateful to be given this opportunity to do my small part,” Ms. Watts told a news briefing in New York where she was introduced in her latest role.

“It’s hard to believe that 25 million people have already died of AIDS and nearly 40 million more are now living with HIV. In fact during this briefing alone 300 people will die… and nearly 600 will become newly HIV-infected,” she added. The briefing lasted about 20 minutes.

The star, who recently went on a UNAIDS-led fact-finding mission to Zambia, showed photos of AIDS victims there and said one of her main goals would be to fight the stigma and discrimination attending the disease, thus impeding progress in treatment and prevention.

“Through her determination to make a difference, I know that she will be a strong and eloquent advocate for an enhanced global AIDS response,” Dr.
Piot said in a message on her appointment. “I am also confident that the unique presence and passion that Ms. Watts brings to this issue will remind concerned citizens everywhere of the urgent need for serious and sustained action in the global fight against AIDS, and the vital role of the United Nations in this effort.”

   
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