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Thousands Gather in Sydney for HIV Conference

As an HIV positive woman from Papua New Guinea, Maura Elaripe Mea knows the harsh realities of living with the virus in a developing country.

She has seen AIDS patients left untreated because doctors feared it would be a waste of drugs, and she knows many others do not seek help simply because they cannot afford a bus ticket to the nearest clinic.

When she was first diagnosed eight years ago, the former nurse said the treatment of AIDS patients by medics was appalling.

"The treatment was shocking in the early years, the nurses and doctors didn't know about HIV," she said.

"There was a woman who died (in hospital) and they put her in a black plastic bag. Right in front of me.

"I said, 'Why did they put in her in the bag?' and they said to me, 'Nobody is going to come and get her, she is HIV'. That really freaked me out. I thought, are they going to do the same to me?"

Elaripe herself almost died in December 2002 but was saved when friends raised money to buy her generic drugs. She believes the fact that she was living in the capital Port Moresby, rather than a remote province where medication would not have been available, saved her life.

"If I was in other areas I would have died," she told AFP ahead of a major HIV/AIDS conference in Sydney which opens Sunday.

Now 31, Elaripe has dedicated herself to lobbying for HIV sufferers.

She said while huge improvements have been made since she was diagnosed, the powerful anti-retroviral drugs used to prolong her life for more than a decade should be more readily available in developing countries.

"What I personally would like to see is the drugs rolled out as far as the health centres in the villages," she said.

She also wants greater access to newer, less toxic, more expensive versions of the treatments.

"I am hoping, especially looking at my region, the Asi a-Pacific region, that there will be a positive outcome -- the scaling up of second line drugs," she said of the conference.

"I've been on first line (drugs) for a couple of years and I believe I am developing a resistance."

Elaripe is one of 5,000 delegates from around the world attending the July 22-25 International AIDS Society conference in Sydney which will discuss cutting edge developments in HIV/AIDS research.

Debrework Zewdie, Director of the Global HIV/AIDS Programme for the World Bank, said while vast improvements had been made, much more needed to be done.

"Twenty-eight percent of those in need get treatment now which is a huge achievement when you compare it to where we started. But it's only 28 percent," she told AFP.

Those who are particularly disadvantaged include those people living in remote areas and vulnerable groups, such as intravenous drug users.

"There's a problem of infrastructure, there's a problem of human capacity -- nurses, doctors, researchers," she said, adding that the social stigma associated with the disease remains an obstacle.

Since the beginning of the AIDS pandemic 25 years ago, more than 25 million people are thought to have died from the disease while an estimated 40 million are now living with the virus which causes AIDS.


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