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UN Reviews Progress in Fight Against HIV/AIDS

The U.N. General Assembly is holding a high-level meeting Thursday to review progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Delegates are being told that the AIDS epidemic is spreading faster than the response to it.

In a report prepared for the General Assembly, Secretary-General Kofi Annan says the battle against AIDS is losing ground. Despite years of concerted effort, the report says, the epidemic is expanding.

It concludes that the commitment to fighting the AIDS virus is inadequate in many countries where AIDS is emerging as a major problem. Sub-Saharan Africa is the hardest-hit, accounting for 64 percent of the world's HIV infections and 74 percent of all AIDS deaths last year.

Among the most vulnerable groups are young people, women and girls, and intravenous drug users.

Strategists in the AIDS fight says among their biggest challenges is trying to help this mostly young and female group to protect themselves.

One idea has been to enlist groups of youth from these most vulnerable groups who can communicate with their peers. On the eve of the AIDS assembly, the United Nations published a booklet written by young team of researchers from 12 South Asian, African and Caribbean countries, talking directly to people their age.

One of the authors, 20-year old Eunice Aghete of Lagos, Nigeria says the key to the strategy is that young people simply find their peers more believable.

"The best way to reach out to young people is through young people. I don't think I could be able to sit down comfortably and allow a woman of 70 to talk to me about HIV/AIDS or talk to me about prevention. I would listen out of fear, out of age gap, out of respect, but would pay more attention to my own peer who would sit down and tell me that HIV/AIDS is real and these are the ways to prevent it.… That's what young people are asking for," Mr. Aghete says.

Another contributor to the project is Vikram Singh Laishram of the Indian state of Manipur. He has been living with the HIV virus since he was 15, when he was an intravenous drug user sharing needles with others. Now, at the age of 22, he is trying to save others from his fate, working as a counselor in an AIDS education project.

"I got infected during my formative years. That's when I was not mature at all. So I feel I'm not responsible for my disease," Mr. Laishram says. "Now after working on this field for about seven years I feel that I'm responsible for my treatment, not my disease, and I feel more secure now because there are many peers who have come out from the stigma and discrimination who is willing to disclose their status in the society."

The young people say in the preface to the booklet, "we ask to be regarded as assets, not liabilities. Our diverse voices need to be heard so we can be instruments for change."

U.N. Population Fund director Thoraya Obaid said she had been touched by one youth's plea to his elders for information about AIDS. She quoted him saying "You say we are too young to know. We say we are too young to die".