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Elton John, Prince Harry, seek to 'smash' HIV stigma
[AMSTERDAM] Elton John and Britain's Prince Harry launched a US$1.2 billion initiative Tuesday to "break the cycle" of HIV transmission as scientists announced disappointing results in the quest for an Aids cure.
On the second day of a major international Aids conference in Amsterdam, the celebrity duo lent their mega-wattage star power to efforts to end the lingering stigma around HIV, and protect future generations against it.
The target of their initiative, dubbed the MenStar Coalition, is young men - among whom infections are on the rise.
"Young people are the only age group where HIV infections are rising, not falling," warned rock star and veteran Aids campaigner John.
"We have to do much, much more to bring men, especially younger men, more fully into the fold" - so also shielding their sexual partners, he insisted.
Men aged 24 to 35 were accessing HIV testing and treatment at "unacceptably low rates," said the flamboyant singer.
"If we want to win this fight, if we want to end Aids once and for all, we must make men part of the solution" and give them the tools to protect themselves as well as "their wives and girlfriends, their sisters, and daughters, but also critically their brothers and their sons."
Some 15,000 delegates - researchers, campaigners, activists and people living with the HIV virus which causes Aids - have gathered for a five-day global council of war amid warnings the Aids epidemic could yet spiral out of control.
A renewed focus on preventing infection, with rates surging in some regions - particularly eastern Europe and central Asia, is critical as the scientific quest for a vaccine and cure continues.
On Monday, researchers reported setbacks in a number of studies and trials.
"A cure remains a top scientific priority," said researcher Sharon Lewin of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity at the University of Melbourne.
However, "what we've learnt, I think over the last decade: this is going to be a very difficult scientific challenge."
Experts reported worrying cases of birth defects among women using a promising new drug, and said that "feminising" hormone therapy appears to lower concentrations of virus-suppressing medicine in the blood.
A trial to test a new strategy to "kick" the AIDS-causing HIV virus out of its hiding place in human cells, then "kill" it, also yielded a disappointing outcome.
Experts this week warned that the epidemic which has killed 35 million people so far, may resurge due to political "apathy" and a resultant shortage of funding.
"The progress we have fought so hard for is at risk from a dangerous complacency," Prince Harry told conference delegates.
The new initiative was focused on "the tough but essential work of truly changing mindsets," he said.
"Inspired by the growing alarm of the rate of new HIV infections among young women, this campaign is bravely tackling the root of this problem - the lack of awareness of HIV prevention amongst hard-to-reach young men."
He urged people to unite around the "smashing of a deadly stigma" surrounding HIV, "and calling out the prejudice that is still there".
South African actress Charlize Theron agreed, while also raising a flag for women.
The epidemic is "not just about sex or sexuality," she said. "We know it is linked to the second-class status of women and girls worldwide."
Some 37 million people live with HIV today, with some 1.8 million new infections recorded last year.
UNaids estimates the global fight is short some US$7 billion per year.