Bill Clinton: AIDS is “a very big dragon” but it can be slain

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Former US President Bill Clinton said nations fighting AIDS need to reform their health care systems to reach high-risk groups neglected during the past quarter of a century.

The American government has failed to prevent the virus in black community, who account for half of new infections, he said yesterday at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City.

In Africa, 30 percent of babies born to mothers with HIV are infected with the virus, though there are drugs that could cut the risks to less than two percent if widely available.

He said his Foundation will increase projects to reduce the infection rates.

President Clinton, 61, who has made the fight against AIDS the focus of his post-White House career, said every health clinic should routinely test for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, especially in developing countries where 80 percent of infected people don’t know their status.

He commended Mexico for passing legislation to increase access to health care, saying similar actions would help reduce the number of annual new HIV infections.

There were 2.7 million new infections worldwide in 2007.

“AIDS is a very big dragon,” President Clinton said yesterday.

“The mythological dragon was slain by St George, the original knight in shining armour, but this dragon must be slain instead by millions of millions of foot soldiers.”

56,300 people in the U.S. contract HIV in 2006, 40 percent more than previously forecast, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week.

“For Americans, this should be a wake-up call that even as we keep working globally we need to do much more to fight AIDS at home, and I intended to do so with my foundation,” President Clinton said.

The William J Clinton Foundation has worked to reduce the cost of treatment by 50 percent and help more than one million people get access to care by negotiating pricing deals with drug manufacturers.

Its budget for international AIDS relief is almost as large as the U.S. government’s budget was for those programmes during his administration.

In the two years since the former President last spoke at the biennial AIDS meeting, his Foundation has grown from 50 people and $5 million (£2.5m) to employ more than 500 people with a $200 million budget.

It also expanded its work last month to include reducing the cost of malaria drugs.

In office President Clinton, a Democrat, found his efforts to further increase AIDS funding blocked by a Republican-controlled Congress and by social stigmas about the disease and contraception, said Russell Riley, a Presidential scholar at the University of Virginia Miller Centre of Public Affairs in Charlottesville, reported.

The New York-based William J. Clinton Foundation’s AIDS programme focuses on increasing access to treatment by lowering the cost of generic drugs and improving health care services in developing countries.

Unlike other organisations, the Foundation doesn’t employ relief workers or buy drugs. Instead, it provides money, equipment and training for health care clinics in remote areas.

By exploiting Clinton’s contacts, the Foundation persuades businesses to expand the availability of drugs and encourages government to spend more money on neglected areas such as preventing the transmission of HIV from mothers to their newborn children.

The foundation also has a staff of chemists who develop less expensive ways to manufacture drugs.

About 60 percent of the Foundation’s AIDS money comes from a program called Unitaid, funded by an airline ticket tax on flights out of France, Chile, and six other countries.

The remainder comes from private donors, such as the singer Elton John and the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.