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9th European AIDS Conference opens in Poland

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Warsaw (dpa) - Some 2,500 physicians from 44 countries grouped under the European AIDS Clinical Society (EACS) and working to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Europe gathered in the Polish capital Warsaw Sunday for the 9th European AIDS Conference.

It is the first time Europe's leading HIV/AIDS clinicians are meeting in Eastern Europe, a region plagued by the highest growth rate in HIV/AIDS infections on the continent but with alarmingly few prevention and treatment programmes.

"We have to push politicians for a high level of political commitment to policies of access to health care and anti-retroviral therapy for all HIV/AIDS patients as their fundamental human right," EACS President Professor Christine Katlama told delegates at the official opening ceremony.

"Africa is fighting for more access to anti-retroviral drugs, Eastern Europe should not remain behind with no access to these drugs for patients," Katlama said.

"It costs less to treat patients than it does to just let them die."

Leading AIDS clinicians at the conference have warned that Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics must act now to prevent a catastrophic explosion in HIV/AIDS cases in the coming decade.

"Several governments in Eastern Europe are in complete denial about the problem, which they haven't seen yet because their population is not sick yet," says EACS epidemiologist Jens Lundgren.

"It's crystal-clear that they have to react now because the longer they allow this to go on, the bigger the problem will be," he warned.

According to EACS, of the 1.7 million to 2 million people infected with HIV/AIDS across Europe, about 1.2 million live in the East, primarily Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.

Of these 1.2 million cases, an estimated 600,000 will develop into full-blown AIDS, and this number is certain to only be the tip of the iceberg if new infections continue at the current high rate.

Doctors described as "alarming" the fact that of the 280,000 to 300,000 new infections seen across Europe last year, about 250,000 were in Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, Western Europe has seen major progress in stemming infections and saving the lives of HIV/AIDS patients, with mortality rates now down to 2 per cent from 25 per cent in 1994-95, according to EACS.

"The only wise thing we as a continent can do is to implement effective prevention measures," Lundgren said.

Top priorities are clean needle distribution for intravenous drug users, particularly in prisons where infections are rampant; methadone programmes for infected addicts so they can better manage their disease; and effective treatment for people who are already infected, he advised.

"Otherwise we are heading for a huge catastrophe in the eastern parts of Europe," he warned.

With a population of nearly 40 million, European Union-bound Poland was identified as a positive example to follow. Swift reaction to the onset of HIV infections in the early and mid-1990s has meant that reported cumulative infections totalled 7,307 at the end of 2001, with experts pegging both reported and unreported cumulative cases at 20,000. The country is poised to join the E.U. next May.

Held under the patronage of Poland's President Aleksander Kwasniewski, the 9th European AIDS Conference is scheduled to close October 29. This year's meeting will also see the 1st EACS Resistance and Pharmacology Workshop.

AIDS experts predict 45 million more people around the globe will become infected with HIV/AIDS by 2010, for a total 105 million cases.

Grim projections forecast 70 million deaths around the globe due to AIDS by 2020.

Copyright 2003 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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