Suu Kyi urges 'freedom from fear' on World AIDS Day

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi called on World AIDS Day Sunday for an end to discrimination towards victims of the disease as experts warned against complacency in fighting the global scourge.

Speaking as the UNAIDS global advocate for HIV/AIDS victims, Suu Kyi drew parallels between the plight of sufferers and her own struggle for democracy.

"The fight against discrimination is an extension of our fight for freedom from fear," said the Myanmar opposition leader and democracy icon.

"My simple message as the global ambassador for zero discrimination is it all starts in the mind and in the heart. There must be less calculation and more warmth, more love, more affection, more compassion."

Suu Kyi was speaking in Melbourne at the launch of AIDS 2014, a major global health conference to be held in the city in July with 14,000 delegates from almost 200 countries.

Together with UNAIDS director Michael Sidibe she unveiled a campaign targeting prejudice against HIV/AIDS sufferers, with the world's first Zero Discrimination Day to be held on March 1.

Sidibe said scientific breakthroughs and visionary leadership meant there was now an end in sight to "an epidemic that has wrought such staggering devastation around the world".

"But make no mistake, stigma, denial and complacency are still among us, putting us in danger of failing the next generation," he said.

In its annual report on the state of the global pandemic released in September, UNAIDS said new HIV infections had plummeted by a third overall since 2001 and more than halved among children.

Twenty-five countries -- many in sub-Saharan Africa -- reported a 50 percent reduction in new infections last year due to increased availability of treatments.

Last year 1.6 million people died from AIDS-related causes, down from 2.3 million in 2005, according to the United Nations.

Sharon Lewin, an infectious diseases professor and co-chair of AIDS 2014, said there had been substantial progress in the global response to HIV.

But she said the world was at a crossroads with HIV.

"We have come so far and there have been so many successes," she said. "But still there are so many challenges, the biggest being that we know what works, but yet we still can't broadly implement it."

'Our health and our lives depend on it'

In Rome, Pope Francis issued a World AIDS Day appeal for universal access to treatment.

"We reach out to the people who are suffering, especially to children," the pope said after the weekly Angelus prayers.

"Each sick person, without exception, must have access to the treatment they need."

Worldwide, 35.3 million people were living with HIV in 2012, 70 percent of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

In South Africa, the country with the world's biggest caseload -- 6.4 million HIV sufferers and millions of AIDS orphans -- Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi issued an appeal for his compatriots to get themselves tested.

"We believe that somehow the momentum was dying down. We want to remind people that the issue of getting tested is very important and they must continue with it," he said.

South Africa has made huge progress in combatting the disease over the past decade, raising the prospect of an AIDS-free generation.

In a newspaper column Patrick Gaspard, the US ambassador in Pretoria, listed milestones achieved with US help including a reduction in the mother-to-child HIV transmission rate to less than three percent, and nearly 295,000 men medically circumcised as a preventative measure.

But Fareed Abdullah, head of South Africa's National Aids Council, warned that "we still have a massive problem with new infections", with some 370,000 for 2012 alone.

"The biggest drivers of unsafe sex are structural. Older men with a greater accumulated risk of HIV exposure are infecting younger women," he said.

Infection rates in young women aged 15 to 19 are three times higher than their male counterparts, often as a result of paid sex between poor teenagers and wealthier older men, he said.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo's troubled east, local rap outfit Black's Power was staging an AIDS awareness concert in Bukavu to denounce the disease's toll.

Organised by African Artists for Development, with music booming out from a beaten-up old truck, the rap gig aims to condemn discrimination against AIDS victims, the plight of abandoned AIDS orphans, and the lack of available testing.

"AIDS is here my brothers and sisters, We have to get tested if we are to protect ourselves," run the lyrics to one song entitled "Ignorance is Killing Us".

"Let's not be afraid, let's not be ashamed, Our health and our lives depend on it."