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Kofi Annan discusses how AIDS can destroy entire societies ...
People are afraid to get tested, world leaders are afraid to mention condoms ...

World AIDS Day 2005
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Norris: We talked before about the antiretroviral access in Western Europe and in the U.S., and yet in the AIDS Day report just last week, the assessment of the situation in the U.S. where over a million people are said to be living with HIV was: "The failure to adapt and sustain the prevention successes achieved during the first 10 to 15 years have contributed to this infection rate in this country." I guess people are just not being as safe about their sexual activity as they were in the early days, and my question for you is, is that almost always going to be a byproduct of access to treatment? With greater access to the treatment, aren't people just going to get lazy about their behavior?

Annan: People tend to get complacent — and in fact there are statistics indicating that in some poorer countries, people who have access to medication take it much more dutifully than some people in this society. Secondly, yes if people think it is something that cannot kill you and you can be treated and you can function and live with it, they're probably not as scared of it as they would have been if they knew it was going to kill them in a month's time or six months' time. But that is also the wrong way to look at it, and so I hope they will pay attention to their behavior, protect themselves and ensure that they and their friends are not infected.

MTV News RAW: Kofi Annan

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Norris: Back in the '80s the AIDS activist group Act Up coined the phrase "Silence = Death." I think those words can really still apply in parts of the world today. Wouldn't you agree?

Annan: Oh absolutely. There are many parts of the world where that phrase still applies, where leaders have not spoken up, where they are not making resources available for prevention and treatment. I know of a situation where an African head of state was going to say something on AIDS Day. His staff prepared a statement for him, and the statement was promoting condoms. He said, "I can't say that word." [They] said, "Why can't you say that word?' [He] said, "Look, I'm the father of the nation. You can't expect me to go around promoting promiscuity." It took them two weeks to get him to say it.

Norris: And certainly Africa doesn't have a monopoly on that sort of moral grandstanding. The U.S. as well, in order for some programs — foreign programs, condom-distribution programs and other prevention programs — to get U.S. funding, there is a stipulation that they disown and that they denounce prostitution and the sex trade. Is this fight to save people's lives any place for that sort of moral barometer being forced on any program?

Annan: I think life is life, and where life is at stake, we need to do whatever we can to protect and save that life. There are times for moral preaching, moral lessons, and there are times for urgent actions to protect life, and I think sometimes we get our wires crossed and let the better become the enemy of the good. I don't know which is better, but at least sometimes those who preach those things think they have a better solution and let it get into the way of the good. And it is important that we get our priorities right and know when to act and what to put first. And I think in my judgment, taking action to save lives and to protect these people — in particular the young ones — is absolutely essential and should take precedence.

Norris: It's a unique disease, isn't it? Not only in its ability to decimate a generation, village or nations, but in the fact that it has this specific means of transmission and the high risk groups were groups that are often disenfranchised groups — homosexuals, IV drug users. Even today, IV drug use in Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Russia is the primary means of transmission, and the sex trade in many other parts of the world as well. [HIV/AIDS] still carries that stigma, doesn't it?

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Annan: It does, but it's not always accurate, it's not always fair. I mean, take a look at the case of innocent women. The wives and the women are often much more faithful. They are at home. It's the husbands and the boyfriends who often bring this in the home. They are not prostitutes. The drug users who infect themselves and become infected have girlfriends. They pass it on. And suddenly you see the numbers of women carrying the disease increase exponentially, and yet we know that they are not prostitutes. These are housewives that are sitting at home, and I think the stigma is so unfair, but it is there. There are some people who believe that the people who get it have got it because of immoral behavior and if only they were to be moral, this would not happen. But there are lots of innocent victims. Take the cruelest of all infections: the children who are born with the disease. And in some cases one pill for the mother in every period during pregnancy can protect the child. And sometimes you don't have it. So you have millions of orphans today walking around the world. And in some situations a girl or a boy of 12 is a parent looking after younger siblings because nobody else is there.

Norris: What can a young person do who doesn't have a lot of money and wants to contribute somehow to the relief effort?

Annan: You don't have to have very much money to contribute to Red Cross or to UNICEF; every little amount helps. They can also, in some cases [contribute directly] — in fact, Pakistanis were talking about "We hope people will come and say, 'I am adopting this school here,' 'I am adopting a village here,' " and exchange materials, send books, send all their educational things, and even sometimes write to these young people and encourage them, to let them know there's someone on the other side of the world who cares, and that they are not alone.

Norris: As we look ahead to that 25-year mark of HIV and AIDS next June, thinking ahead 25 years beyond that to the 50-year mark of AIDS, will we have turned a corner in this fight by that point do you think?

Annan: It will depend on several things: if we have discovered a vaccine, which I hope we will in the next 10 years or so, and medication is also generally available and prevention has taken hold. ... If, in 20, 25 years from now, no vaccine, we are in the same situation where some have access to medication but the vast majority do not, I wouldn't say we would have turned a corner. But if we do not do much more than we are doing now, our problems will be more than just the disease. We will have societies which have been decimated.

Photo: Getty Images

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