By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - The fight against AIDS risks being set back years by a global financial crisis, the head of the United Nations campaign against the disease warned Wednesday.
About 34 million people worldwide are infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, just over two-thirds of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Incidence rates are falling and access to treatment is expanding.
However, a decline in donor contributions has caused a funding crisis within the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the largest body for HIV funding, and is dampening optimism about an eventual end to the disease, UNAIDS director Michel Sidibe told Reuters in an interview.
"It is not the time to stop, to reverse all this achievement. The financial crisis is there ... but when we have a financial crisis we need to be innovative," Sidibe said.
Annual funding for HIV/AIDS programs fell to $15 billion in 2010 from $15.9 billion in 2009, well below the $22-24 billion the U.N. agency says is needed annually by 2015 to pay for a comprehensive, effective global response.
Speaking on the sidelines of an international AIDS conference in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, Sidibe said donors could raise funds through taxes.
"If we have a global financial transaction tax, say of 0.5 percent, we will have $226 billion. Ten percent of that resource is enough for financing the fight against HIV/AIDS, stopping the epidemic, because we can reduce by 96 percent the number of new infections by putting people early on treatment," Sidibe said.
"We can have taxation on cigarettes and alcohol. We can find different ways to mobilize new resources."
With many large international donor countries struggling with looming recession and debt crises, public health experts say it is crucial for countries affected by HIV/AIDS to increase their own funding, especially developing countries.
"Sustainability and particularly reducing dependency, making sure that African leaders are taking responsibility to initiate a new discussion around treatment and (the) AIDS financing crisis in Africa, those for me will be the most important messages to come out from Addis Ababa," Sidibe said.
The Global Fund is already cutting new grants for countries battling HIV. The public-private fund contributes about 70 percent of the money spent on life-saving antiretroviral drugs in developing nations.
Former President George W. Bush, whose President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program committed $15 billion dollars for a five-year period in 2003, urged Americans to contribute despite their own economic woes.
"It's essential our country not retreat from the world, it's essential that we continue to show our compassion by funding programs that work," Bush told reporters ahead of the meeting, which opened Sunday.
The U.S. government provided the Global Fund with its founding contribution and has been its largest single donor since its inception in 2001.
(Editing by Richard Lough and Alessandra Rizzo)