By Katie Nguyen
MELBOURNE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An AIDS-free generation is within reach if early treatment is provided to people infected with HIV and help scaled up for women and children, former U.S. president Bill Clinton said on Wednesday.
Addressing an international conference on AIDS in the Australian city of Melbourne, Clinton said much progress has been made since the world started fighting the AIDS epidemic.
His speech, which attracted hundreds of scientists, activists and journalists, was briefly interrupted by protesters holding placards, demanding a "Robin Hood" tax on financial transactions to fund the fight against HIV and AIDS.
"We should no longer have any doubts, nor should anyone else, that we have the ability to see this effort through to the end," said Clinton, resuming his speech.
"An AIDS-free generation is within our reach," he told the packed auditorium.
Although the world had made great strides in expanding HIV treatment to millions of people, every year more than 2 million people – about four a minute – were newly infected, he said.
The number of people dying from AIDS-related illnesses has fallen steadily in recent years. In 2013, some 1.5 million people died, compared with 2.4 million people in 2005, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
Big challenges include finding and treating people with HIV early, and delivering care in hard-to-reach and rural places.
He said poor countries in particular must be supported to meet specific goals over the next three to five years.
Countries must drastically reduce the transmission of HIV through breastfeeding, ensure babies born with HIV receive immediate treatment, and identify and treat children infected with HIV in the past decade, Clinton said.
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS can be transmitted via blood, breast milk and by semen during sex, but can be kept in check with cocktails of drugs known as antiretroviral therapy.
"As many as 50 percent of all new pediatric infections occur during the breastfeeding period," Clinton said.
"So, keeping these women in care until the end of breastfeeding is perhaps the single most important thing we can do to achieve an AIDS-free generation. It's our big remaining barrier," he said.
While the Clinton family charity, Health Access Initiative, mainly targets the poor, he acknowledged HIV was also a high-income problem. He noted too that the number of infections among younger men having sex with men is rising in the United States.
He ended his speech, calling for a redoubling of efforts to combat stigma and prejudice which have been blamed for the high levels of HIV in the most high-risk groups: sex workers, gay men, prisoners, injecting drug users and transgender people.
(Editing by Alex Whiting and Louise Ireland)