Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Amsterdam — A world AIDS assembly in Amsterdam is hoping to harness the star power of activists Elton John and Prince Harry to bolster the battle against an epidemic experts warn may yet spiral out of control.

Thousands of researchers, campaigners, activists and people living with HIV arrived on Monday for the 22nd International AIDS Conference.

Experts warned that new HIV infections, while down overall, have surged in some places as global attention has waned and funding levelled off. Too sharp a focus on virus-suppressing treatment may have diverted attention from prevention programmes such as condom distribution, with the result that HIV is still spreading easily among vulnerable groups.

"The encouraging reductions in new HIV infections that occurred for about a decade has emboldened some to declare that we are within reach of ending AIDS," Peter Piot, researcher and founder of the UNAIDS agency, said last week.

But "there is absolutely no evidence to support this conclusion", he insisted. "The language on ending AIDS has bred a dangerous complacency."

UNAIDS reported an overall drop in new infections and AIDS deaths, and a record number of people on antiretroviral therapy.

These hard-fought gains could be reversed, experts said ahead of the conference.

In hard-hit countries an alarming rate of new infections and an exploding young population could spell "a crisis of epic proportions", said Mark Dybul, a veteran AIDS researcher and diplomat. "Bad things will happen if we don’t have more money," he said, warning the world was "probably at the highest risk ever of losing control of this epidemic".

Dybul and colleagues said donor and domestic funding has dropped significantly and was likely to continue to decline from about $24.1bn in 2017, most of it financed from the domestic budgets of nations with the heaviest AIDS burden.

According to UNAIDS, the funding gap is almost $7bn per year.