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Twenty years. Twenty-two million deaths. Thirty-six million people living in jeopardy.

That's the legacy of AIDS and of HIV, the virus that causes it. Worse, there is no sign that this plague of the 20th and 21st centuries is even weakening.

As countries are ravaged, people are thrown into poverty. Families are devastated. It's time to come to a worldwide, unified agreement on how to combat the disease.

A special session of the United Nations sought last week to reach that point of unity, but the effort was hampered by infighting over religious, ethical and moral viewpoints. At the start of the summit, the special assembly was sidetracked by debate over whether a representative from a gay group should be permitted at the discussion table; disputes impeded work on the language of a unified agreement.

Still, the General Assembly approved a 16-page Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS. The new U.N. blueprint for the fight against the disease sets targets for reducing infection rates, accelerates efforts to find a cure and calls for protecting the rights of people infected with HIV.

What it doesn't do is specifically name the most vulnerable populations, including homosexuals and prostitutes. It's unfortunate that ancillary issues of outlook and language could cloud what is basically a health issue and divert what should remain the main discussion at such an important event - the fight against AIDS - but it's indicative of the attitudes that have allowed the disease to spread.

The disease has been so rampant in some parts of the world that it is difficult for decision-makers to pinpoint the area of severest devastation, although some African countries rank high.

Practices and beliefs have been a deterrent in trying to educate people - in rural Kenya, for example, the HIV-infected widow of an AIDS victim is passed along the family line as an inheritance. In some countries, such as Mauritania, condoms are virtually illegal.

Making matters worse is the bizarre and stubborn stance being taken by South African President Thabo Mbeki, who actually skipped the U.N. conference on AIDS in New York to visit the White House.

AIDS has struck South Africa harder than any other nation, yet Mbeki has, in the past, expressed skepticism that the HIV virus causes the disease. Confronted by journalists, Mbeki insisted that his country has acted to prevent and treat the disease.

Mbeki's visit to the White House and his absence at a key meeting of worldwide leaders on AIDS is perplexing and troubling. Also puzzling was President Bush's acceptance of the visit and willingness to ease the way for the South African president, although their discussion included AIDS issues.

However, Bush deserves credit for offering further American contributions to a global fund being established to finance the fight against the disease. The Bush administration offered $200 million last month. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said $7 billion to $10 billion is needed annually to halt AIDS and reverse the effects of the disease.

The United States also announced it would drop its World Trade Organization litigation against Brazil for planning to produce and market generic anti-AIDS medicine. This is a crucial step in the fight against AIDS, as well as a victory for Brazil.

Finding ways to battle this insidious disease has proven difficult. It has been beset by obstacles presented by various cultures, beliefs and norms. On the 20th anniversary of the discovery of AIDS, though, there must be a unified push to combat its spread throughout the world and halt its devastation of regions already severely affected. This is a plague that cannot be ignored, and the price of endless disputes is human suffering and despair.

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