Leader Profile: Peter Piot, Executive Director, UNAIDS

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, UNAIDS, is the United Nations primary global action against the global epidemic. Peter Piot heads this agency.

UNAIDS was established in 1996 in response to the spread and gravity of the international AIDS and HIV epidemic. Africa has been hardest hit, there the disease has created millions of orphans, but HIV infection rates continue to rise in some of the world's most populous countries, China, India, Indonesia and Russia among them. "We are now entering the globalization phase of the epidemic", Peter said. "So far the epidemic has been largely in sub-Saharan Africa. But now one in four new infections is being reported in Asia, and the fastest growing epidemic is in Eastern Europe".

The nature of the spread of HIV / AIDS has meant that UNAIDS has had to adapt its policies and programs. One of the most dramatic changes has been rising infection rates among women. Peter explained, "Today, sixty percent of all those with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are women – and over seventy-five percent of young people with HIV are girls. The fastest growing rates of new HIV infections among women are now found in Eastern Europe and Asia. And, in America, the leading cause of death among African American women ages 25-34 is AIDS".

A Belgian national, Peter took up his position in 1994. In January this year the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan renewed this appointment for a further four years. "I am very pleased and honoured to have the opportunity to serve UNAIDS for an additional four years", Peter commented. He graduated as a doctor of medicine from the University of Ghent in 1974 and obtained a Doctorate in Microbiology from the University of Antwerp in 1980. He took up his current post after working as Associate Director of the Global Program on AIDS of the World Health Organization. Prior to that he had served as Professor of Microbiology and Head of the Department of Infection and Immunity at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Associate Professor of Public Health at the Free University of Brussels, Associate Professor of Microbiology at the University of Nairobi, and Senior Fellow in infectious diseases at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA. In 1976 he co-discovered the Ebola virus.

Peter believes there are reasons to be hopeful about tackling the epidemic. He explained, "Over the past three years, funding for the fight against AIDS in low-income countries has nearly tripled. With these greater resources and the tireless efforts of our indigenous partners on the ground, we are increasing access to voluntary counselling and testing, AIDS education in schools, programs to prevent mother-to-child transmission, antiretroviral therapy, support to orphans, and more".

Peter is keen to make the most effective and efficient use of the resources available to him. "As we have seen over the past 20 years, it is not enough merely to pay for condoms, test kits, or even medicine. We have to train doctors, nurses, and community workers; we have to build hospitals and clinics. These are investments that must be made". He asserted, "If we hope to have the resources to treat the epidemic in the hardest hit countries, we must prevent major epidemics in the most populous countries".

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