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 against those living with the disease as experts warned against complacency in fighting the global scourge.

Speaking as the UNAIDS global advocate for people living with HIV/AIDS, 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 HIV-related prejudice, 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 anti-retroviral drug treatment.

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

'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.

South Africa, the country with the world's biggest caseload -- 6.4 million HIV-positive people and millions of AIDS orphans -- set a target to get four million men medically circumcised by 2016, after studies showed the procedure can slash the risk of HIV infection.

"Our target is to circumcise one million men over the next 12 months and cumulatively four million men by 2016," said Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.

The campaign goes in tandem with a push to get South Africans tested.

"You may have tested in 2010 or 2011, test again this year, and every year," said Motlanthe.

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 to South Africa, 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.

But Fareed Abdullah, head of South Africa's National Aids Council, warned that "we still have a massive problem with new infections", with about 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 staged an AIDS awareness concert in Bukavu to denounce the disease's toll.

Organised by African Artists for Development, the gig aims to condemn discrimination against those living with AIDS as well as highlight 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."