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New global AIDS focus: careful budgets?

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New AIDS plans released by the United Nations and the U.S. government on Tuesday stress smarter, targeted spending as a way to keep up the fight against the pandemic during a global recession.

A red ribbon hangs in advance of World AIDS Day on the front of the White House in Washington, November 29, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Even Bill Gates, the multi-billionaire Microsoft founder who has used his foundation’s fortune to kick-start many an AIDS program, said money is too tight to think of much new spending.

He said he will highlight programs that get the most bang for the buck when he makes a keynote speech to an international AIDS meeting in Vienna next week.

The United Nations AIDS program UNAIDS released what it called “a radically simplified HIV treatment platform called Treatment 2.0 that could decrease the number of AIDS-related deaths drastically”.

It called on drug companies to produce AIDS pills that are less toxic and tests to diagnose human immunodeficiency virus infection that are easier to use.

Cocktails of HIV drugs can help stop people from infecting others, and UNAIDS said treating everyone who needs it could reduce new infections by a third. Out of 33.4 million people globally who are infected with HIV, 5 million now get drugs.

Non-drug-related costs of treatment, such as hospitalization and monitoring, are twice the cost of the drugs and the UNAIDS plain aims to cut these expenses in half.

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U.S. President Barack Obama presented a similar plan, asking states and federal agencies to find ways to cut new infections by 25 percent, get more patients treated quickly and educate Americans about the deadly and incurable virus.

There is “no question that there is not a big pot of new money,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said. “We can’t expect this to be solved by a huge infusion of new resources.”

AIDS, transmitted during sex, in blood and on needles and in breast milk, gradually wears down the immune system and can take years to cause symptoms. It has killed 25 million people since the early 1980s.

World leaders set this year as a deadline for universal access to treatment for all HIV/AIDS patients who need it. Most campaigners say this target will be missed but global health organizations are using it as a focus for new ideas on fighting the epidemic while funding is squeezed due to budget cuts.

“With a rising treatment bill, countries in economic crisis and increasing prevention needs, the world is demanding change in the AIDS response,” Paul de Lay, a UNAIDS deputy director, told reporters in a telephone briefing.

He said through innovation, the cost of AIDS care could be reduced and AIDS drugs could reach more people who need them.

Gates agreed.

“We can focus our prevention efforts. We can look at where there is the most impact,” Gates told reporters in a telephone briefing.

Gates, whose Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spends a large chunk of its $34 billion endowment on fighting AIDS, is influential in directing other spending as well. He has pushed governments, non-profit groups and other philanthropies to join efforts he supports.

Additional reported by Kate Kelland in London and Ross Colvin in Washington; editing by Mohammad Zargham

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