BANGKOK (Reuters) - Economic crisis and climate change concerns could affect the fight against the AIDS virus and lead to a "universal nightmare," the head of the United Nations' agency for HIV/AIDS said on Sunday.
The global economic downturn has brought about greater inequality and could increase vulnerability and fuel the epidemic, said Michele Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS.
"This is no time to stop. If we stop helping those people, the majority of whom are coming from the poorest segment of society, what we will face is a universal nightmare," he said in an interview.
Sidibe was attending a meeting in Bangkok of parliamentarians from 150 countries to press for the lifting of travel restrictions on people infected with HIV, which he said were "outdated" and "obsolete."
He urged governments facing budgetary restraints not to reduce funding for HIV treatment and prevention.
Sidibe countered criticism that the focus on HIV/AIDS had led to a neglect of other fatal diseases, saying that the agency was working to integrate programs for both HIV and tuberculosis, which is a common cause of death in HIV patients.
NEW POPULATIONS INFECTED
Since HIV was discovered, significant progress has been made. New infections have fallen 17 percent in the past eight years, over four million people now receive necessary treatment.
A recent report by the Global Fund, a multi-donor initiative fighting HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, said the elimination of mother-to-child transmission is within reach by 2015.
However, Sidibe said the virus was making inroads into new populations and areas. According to UNAIDS, for every two people put on treatment, five are newly infected.
He said Africa remains the worst affected but there is growing concern about other parts of the world, especially eastern Europe and central Asia.
Around 70 percent of new infections occurring in those regions were drug users with no access to services because they are considered criminals, Sidibe said.
In Africa, 40 percent of all new infections occur in people who are married or living in stable relationship.
Sidibe said all possible tools, from condoms to circumcision, needed to be used and support from big pharmaceutical companies was essential.
"We need to renegotiate how we can have pharmaceutical firms engaged in a process which can help us to have more sample drugs and better quality first-line treatment," he said.
(Editing by Martin Petty)