Women's rights are latest weapon in AIDS war - Gates

BILL and Melinda Gates, rapidly becoming the world's most high-profile figures in the fight against AIDS, have told a global conference that empowering women in developing countries with preventative drugs against HIV could be the "next big breakthrough" in combating the virus that has already claimed 25 million lives.

The couple joined more than 24,000 scientists, activists, celebrities and health workers from 132 countries on Sunday at the opening of the 16th International AIDS Conference.

The Microsoft founder - with a new $30 billion commitment to his foundation from financier Warren Buffett - recently announced he would step down from his day-to-day duties at the company to devote more time to philanthropy.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

He told the opening ceremonies that the search for a vaccine to prevent the virus that causes AIDS, and universal treatment for those infected with HIV, were now top priorities. "At the same time, we have to understand that the goal of universal treatment - or even the more modest goal of significantly increasing the percentage of people who get treatment - cannot happen unless we dramatically reduce the rate of new infections," he said.

Mr Gates noted that between 2003 and 2005, the number of people in low and middle-income countries on antiretroviral drugs increased by 450,000 each year. Yet over the same period, the number of people who became infected with HIV averaged more than four million a year.

"In other words, for each new person who got treatment for HIV, more than ten people became infected," he said. "Even during our greatest advance, we are falling behind."

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given $1.9 billion to support HIV/AIDS projects worldwide since 1995 and last week announced a $500 million grant to the Global Fund to fight AIDS.

"We want to call on everyone here and around the world to help speed up what we hope will be the next big breakthrough in the fight against AIDS - the discovery of a microbicide or an oral prevention drug that can block the transmission of HIV," Mr Gates said. "This could mark a turning point in the epidemic, and we have to make it a priority," he added.

Microbicides are gels or creams women can use to block infections and disease. Sixteen microbicides are being clinically evaluated; five are in major advanced studies.

The couple called for greater advocacy to break the "cruel stigma" of AIDS for women in impoverished nations who typically have little say over their own sex lives or health.

"We need tools that will allow women to protect themselves," said Mr Gates. "This is true whether the woman is a faithful, married mother of small children, or a sex worker trying to scrape out a living in a slum. No matter where she lives, who she is or what she does - a woman should never need her partner's permission to save her own life."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Mr Gates noted that abstinence and the use of condoms had helped to save many lives, but noted that for many at the highest risk for infection, those preventions had their limits. "Abstinence is often not an option for poor women and girls who have no choice but to marry at an early age. Being faithful will not protect a woman whose partner is not faithful. And using condoms is not a decision that a woman can make by herself - it depends on a man."