21st World AIDS Summit opens in South Africa

21st World AIDS Summit opens in South Africa

Thousands of researchers, activists and donors have opened a global AIDS conference in South Africa, to share ideas about the best ways to treat and prevent the disease.

The five-day conference has drawn more than 18,000 attendees, including actress Charlize Theron, Britain’s Prince Harry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

In a speech at the opening of the conference in Durban, Theron said it is sad that the world has hosted 21 international AIDS conferences without finding a cure for the epidemic. She decried social inequalities which she said are driving the spread of the disease.

“We value men more than women, straight love more than gay love, whiteskin more than black skin, the rich more than the poor, and adults more than the adolescents,” she said.

Ban told reporters Monday that the gains the world has made against AIDS are “inadequate and fragile.” He noted that more than half the people around the world infected with HIV have no access to treatment, about 20 million people.

Retired South African bishop and social rights activist Desmond Tutu said in a video massage delivered at the conference that the poor are the hardest hit by HIV /AIDS.

“Catastrophe has an unholy relationship to poverty, to injustice and to discrimination, for the poor, for those who have been excluded,” he said.

Thousands of activists marched near the conference venue Monday to demand more funding to fight the disease. The United Nations recently announced that it wants to end AIDS by 2030, but activists say more funding is needed.

“We have set a goal to end AIDS by 2030. And there are four more international aids conferences between now and then. They must be our last,” Theron said.

The first time the international AIDS conference was held in Durban, South Africa in 2000, then-President Thabo Mbeki shocked the world by questioning whether HIV really causes AIDS. Now, South Africa says it has the world’s largest treatment program for HIV.

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates said in a speech on the eve of the conference opening, “If we fail to act, all the hard-earned gains made in HIV in sub-Saharan Africa over the last 15 years could be reversed.”