His Excellency, Mr. Jorge Sampaio, President of the Portuguese Republic
On the occasion of the Special Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations on HIV/AIDS
New York, 25 June 2001

I would like to congratulate you, Mr. Secretary General, for convening this special session of the General Assembly, the first in the history of the United Nations to be devoted to a public health issue. I decided to attend because I believe that the AIDS pandemic constitutes a priority at national and international level, one that requires an intense, ongoing mobilisation of efforts to which Portugal wishes to make a committed contribution.

We are all aware, thanks largely to the dedicated work of UNAIDS, which I would like to commend here, that the AIDS virus now affects some 36 million people, 25 million of whom in Sub-Saharan Africa. Let us not forget, as well, the 22 million people who have already died as a result of this epidemic. Surely each one of us knew some of them personally. These figures are appalling. Yet -- we cannot ignore it -- every estimate of the spread of the epidemic has been lower than its true dimension.

Therefore, there cannot be any room for complacency or hesitation. It is a matter of placing, through this forum, the question of AIDS at the top of the international political agenda as a humanitarian issue that cannot be put off and as a serious threat to the security and economic and social development of many countries and regions.

The fight against AIDS has always been delayed and hindered by the stigma attached to the disease and by the fact that the discussion of the most vulnerable groups of people, of the forms of transmission of the virus and of the behaviour that favors it involves questions that, for many, are still taboo. But we cannot allow the touchiness of these questions to silence us, to make us avert our eyes and drop our arms before the insidious advance of the epidemic.

This struggle should mobilise us all. This is surely the understanding of the Heads of State and Government who, through their participation in this meeting, are signalling their commitment to fighting AIDS.

I also greet the NGOs represented here, essential partners in calling attention to and fighting the infection, in the creation of networks of solidarity and in the struggle against discrimination.

Also fundamental is the contribution of those who carry HIV. Their militancy has been decisive to the awakening of consciences to this issue, and their involvement in the efforts directed at prevention and treatment is irreplaceable.

Mr. President,

Although the AIDS virus strikes every region, culture and social group it cannot be denied that it is most prevalent among those populations socially and economically less favoured.

AIDS and poverty go hand in hand and lead to a vicious circle with devastating consequences at every level. Suffice it to reflect, for example, on the millions of orphans created by the epidemic; or on the fact that it strikes mostly those in the prime of their lives, with catastrophic effects, for public administration and the State, for the productive system and for the very social cohesion of the most affected countries.

At bilateral level, and through the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries, with a major contribution by Brazil -- an exemplary case of success in the combat against the epidemic -- we have endeavoured to raise awareness among the Portuguese-speaking countries of Africa about the need to increase their efforts to combat AIDS, and to support their efforts, the more so since we fear that their real situation may be more serious than that suggested by official statistics.

At multilateral level, we support the constitution of a Global Fund for Health and HIV/AIDS that would also cover other transmissible diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. Such a fund should be open to contributions by the public and private sectors and must be provided with effective management. There is undoubtedly a need for the allocation of greater financial resources for AIDS prevention, treatment and research programs. Nevertheless, without political leadership and social mobilisation, greater resources alone will be insufficient to win this fight.

International support must be implemented effectively, at national level, in the field of prevention and treatment. To this end, proper planning and mobilisation are required, in addition to a courageous pedagogic stance, able both to call stereotypes in question and to combat risky behaviour.

International support should also take into account the need for treatment. The cost of medication cannot be allowed to jeopardise it, since one of the central problems in this field is access to care, not forgetting the anti-retroviral therapies that allow a significant improvement to the life-expectancy and quality of life of patients and that, in fifty per cent of cases, prevent the transmission of the virus firm mother to child.

The initiatives that have already been implemented in this field by the pharmaceutical industry are very positive, but efforts must continue to make these medicines more accessible, particularly through greater use of generics.

We must also pay special attention to specific groups more vulnerable to infection, for whom we must promote access to adequate information through proper communication channels.

In the case of Portugal which, in the European context, has a relevant AIDS problem, I would like to underscore the measures taken in the field of drugs, which can have a great effect on the improvement of the results connected with the incidence of HIV. Damage-reducing policies have proved to be effective in reducing the risk of transmissible diseases, as well as in preventing social exclusion and facilitating the relationship with health care structures.

I would also like to underline the need to carry out specific work among the immigrant population, the care to be taken with mobile populations and the attention to be given to prisoners, who must be able to benefit from the possibilities available to the community at large.

As a general concern at international level, I would like to single out the particular importance of the situation of women, the group in which the infection is spreading more swiftly. This requires a non-discriminatory perspective in terms of gender in the combat against the epidemic.

Mr. President,

The fight against AIDS demands the imaginative, audacious creation of new partnerships to set up integrated, effective measures. Governments cannot stand aside from this whole process -- nor can they stand alone. A plural response to an increasingly complex issue must be intensified: public authorities, universities, NGOs, donors, international organisations, private companies, volunteers, all must be called upon to co-operate.

I would address a very special word to the churches and religious groups. I would like to see the part played by these entities in the fight against AIDS strengthened. Here, too, for imperious humanitarian reasons, a commitment is essential, based on compassion and solidarity, a commitment that does not have to call into question the beliefs and moral values of each.

Despite the fact that the situation is bleak, unfortunately, there are encouraging signs that the epidemic can be controlled and substantially reduced through timely, decisive measures. Countries that have implemented effective prevention and assistance programs obtained positive results.

It is our obligation to study these experiences and to learn from them. We must use every means to reduce the impact of the epidemic. For this to be possible we need to be more demanding of ourselves and ask greater dedication and mobilisation of society.

AIDS is a threat of concern to all humankind. For many it is already a terribly concrete source of pain and early death. Nobody is entitled to stand aside from such brutal facts. Responsibility lies with us all; all our commitment is needed; every measure is urgent; and the involvement of all is welcome.