Sonia Gandhi and Nelson Mandela urge world leaders to make stronger efforts to reduce the stigma that surrounds HIV/AIDS

The Fifteenth International AIDS conference ended today with Sonia Gandhi and former South African President Nelson Mandela both urging political leaders to make stronger efforts to reduce the stigma that surrounds HIV/AIDS and step up treatment and prevention measures to get ahead of the devastating epidemic which has already claimed over 20 million lives worldwide.

“I have seen people who have lost jobs and who have been ostracized, and the orphans not adopted because of stigma, and I have seen people fading away in front of their helpless families,” said Gandhi. She asked those who have the power to act and think of those affected not as HIV/AIDS patients, but as men, women, children, brothers, sisters.

Mandela made a plea to world leaders to treat the issue as a top priority.

“There has never been a greater threat in the history of mankind,” he said, stressing that the kind of leadership needed to overcome the epidemic requires personal commitment, clear vision, and imaginative actions. He urged countries to give more financial assistance, in particular to the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

Throughout the conference, the call for stronger leadership was also the primary message of officials from the World Bank, which acts as the trustee of the Global Fund and is the largest financier of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs in the South Asia region.

“South Asia needs political leaders at the regional, national, and local levels to take a stand—to declare and act upon a commitment to steer their countries clear of the trap of inaction and denial,” said Praful Patel, World Bank Vice President for the South Asia Region.

Patel, who was born in Uganda and previously worked in the Africa region, said he sees attitudes among South Asian leaders today which are similar to those of African leaders around seven years ago when HIV/AIDS was emerging as a problem there. He said too many of the leaders quibble about how big the problem is or is not rather than focusing energy on solving it.

According to UNAIDS, over 5 million people in South Asia are living with HIV/AIDS.

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