World AIDS Day marked by warnings — and condom fashions

World AIDS Day was marked around the globe by sombre religious services, boisterous demonstrations and warnings that far more needs to be done to avert millions of additional deaths.

World AIDS Day was marked around the globe by sombre religious services, boisterous demonstrations and warnings that far more needs to be done to avert millions of additional deaths.

Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko conceded his country was losing ground in the race to curb one of Europe's fastest growing epidemics, saying 100,000 Ukrainians have been officially registered as HIV-positive. Every day, 40 citizens of the former Soviet nation are diagnosed with HIV, and eight die from AIDS, Yushchenko said.

"Such figures are shocking," Yushchenko said in a published address timed to coincide with World AIDS Day. "We can't be indifferent to them."

Yushchenko's statement comes as UNICEF officials warn that of a public health catastrophe in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where 270,000 people are infected, some 90 per cent of them through intravenous drug use.

"Eastern Europe stands at the threshold of an AIDS epidemic of catastrophic proportions, which can only be stopped through a broad-based educational campaign," said Dietrich Garlichs, German head of the United Nations Children's Fund.

In Moscow, dozens of believers lit candles and joined in a prayer service in the small Church of St. Catherine the Great Martyr, part of the U.S.-based Orthodox Church in America.

Women lit thin yellow candles tied with the red ribbons that symbolize the fight against HIV and AIDS, while priests led the chanting of prayers.

The Russian Health Ministry said Russia hopes to provide equal access to anti-retroviral drug therapy for all the HIV-infected.

Russian cases rising

Chief epidemiologist Gennady Onishchenko said Thursday that the number of officially registered cases of HIV in the country had reached 362,000. But international agencies and some Russian experts say the true number is closer to 1 million.

Activists allege that Russia, where those infected with HIV are often stigmatized, has dragged its feet in battling the disease.

Some scientists say the nation faces a devastating epidemic in the next decade if nothing is done, accelerating an already rapid decline in Russia's population.

In London, the day was marked by services in Westminster Cathedral and a concert by the London Gay Mens' Chorus at St. Pancras Church.

In Copenhagen, artist Jens Galschioet put up an 2.5-metre sculpture of a crucified pregnant teenager outside Copenhagen's Lutheran cathedral. He called it a protest against the idea that "God allows nothing but chastity and unprotected sex."

City authorities gave the artist permission to erect the statue, named "In the Name of God," outside the cathedral.

Anders Gadegaard, the cathedral's dean, appeared to welcome the message. "It's a good supplement to the crucifix we have inside the church," he said.

Bill Clinton warned that India, which has the largest population of HIV infected people in the world, has become the new epicentre of the global AIDS pandemic. The challenge of controlling the epidemic in India, with 5.7 million infected, is "breathtaking," the former U.S. president toldthe BBC, but it can be achieved.

"This is not rocket science," Clinton said. "We know what to do."

The Clinton Foundation announced Thursday it had struck a deal with two Indian companies to supply 19 antiretroviral drugs for HIV-infected children at steeply discounted prices. Only one in 10 children who needs treatment is getting it, Clinton said in a statement.

The cheaper drugs will be made available to 100,000 children in 62 developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin American and the Caribbean by next year.

Global needs remain staggering

However, the need for additional treatment and prevention programs, health officials say,remains staggering. The global pandemic has killed 25 million people since the first case was reported in 1981, with 40 million currently infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Nations across Asia marked the day with events both serious and lighthearted:

  • In Indonesia, demonstrators marched through the streets of the capital with their faces wrapped in white sheets, some carrying signs that said "No more stigma!" and "Stop HIV/AIDS."
  • In Thailand, AIDS activists planned Friday evening to create the world's "Longest Condom Chain," intended to raise awareness about the disease. Organizers planned to arrange 25,000 condoms side-by-side on a ribbon placed on the ground, stretching through Bangkok's Lumpini Park.
  • In China, schoolgirls decorated classrooms with red ribbons, the international symbol for AIDS awareness. Chinese taxi drivers handed out angel-shaped cards with promoting steps to prevent HIV infections and discrimination against those already infected.
  • In Papua New Guinea, Gov-Gen Paulias Matane and Health Minister Peter Bartertook HIV/AIDS blood tests in front of hundreds of people to encourage voluntary testing. Papua New Guinea has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS among Pacific countries, with aroundtwo per cent of the population estimated to be HIV-positive.
  • In Vietnam,about 450 people participated in an event in Hanoi that brought together about 20 people infected with HIV and hundreds of those not infected, with the aim of reducing the stigma attached to the virus. The group pitched a dozen large tents, where people ate lunch, talked and sang together. A "Condom Fashion Show" featured outfits stitched together with condoms.
  • In Indian-controlled Kashmir, public health authorities have found an unexpected ally in their battle against HIV and AIDS in the deeply conservative region. The Jammu-Kashmir state AIDS prevention and control agency has enlisted hundreds of Islamic clerics to carry the message of safe sexual practices to Muslim believers, officials said.

On Thursday, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urged world leaders to make good on promises to increase funding to combat the deadly virus.

With files from the Associated Press