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The ongoing persecution and criminalization of high-risk groups such as homosexual men and intravenous drug users, coupled with a glaring lack of gender equality in large parts of the world, are undermining the ability to reign in the global epidemic of HIV-AIDS, an international conference heard Sunday.

"Over the past 30 years, our medical knowledge has increased dramatically but our commitment to human rights has not," Yves Souteyrand, co-ordinator of the strategic information office in the HIV-AIDS department of the World Health Organization told the opening session of the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna.

He said while there is much talk of universal treatment, meaning everyone with HIV-AIDS who could benefit from antiretrovirals would get them, "universal treatment cannot be achieved without human rights."

Dr. Souteyrand said many people who are infected do not come forward because they would risk prosecution. These include gay men where homosexuality is criminalized (more than 80 countries), intravenous drug users and commercial sex workers where prostitution is illegal.

Even where these activities are not illegal, there can be social stigma. That stigma is also felt by many infected girls and women, who can be cast out of their families and communities if they are identified as having HIV-AIDS.

The theme of this year's AIDS Conference is "Rights Here, Right Now." More than 20,000 delegates from 185 countries are attending the event.

Vienna was chosen as the site because it is the gateway to Eastern Europe, which is home to the most explosive HIV-AIDS epidemic, one fuelled by intravenous drug users.

"We are dying from repressive drug policies," said Alexandra Volgina, director of Svecha (Candle), a Russian group representing people living with HIV-AIDS.

She noted that, in Russia, one in every four people with HIV-AIDS is in prison, and virtually none are being treated.

"Human rights protections are the key to controlling HIV-AIDS in our region," Ms. Volgina said.

Rachel Arinii Judhistari of the Independent Youth Alliance in Bali, Indonesia, said equality for girls and women is also essential.

She said too many girls are raped, trafficked into prostitution and forced into marriage, and too many are denied access to abortion and birth control, and they are highly vulnerable to infection with HIV-AIDS.

Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, used his address to the plenary to promote Treatment 2.0, a bold plan to get more than 15 million people worldwide on antiretroviral treatment, up from the current five million.

He said it is equally important to tackle discrimination.

"Instead of universal access, the people who suffer most face universal obstacles. No one should endure discrimination. Not men who have sex with men, not transgender people, not sex workers, not people who inject drugs, not prisoners, and especially not people living with HIV," he said. "Gender equality must also become part of our DNA."

Brigitte Schmied, president of the Austrian AIDS Society, said while there is a lot of promising scientific developments, human rights are essential for transforming them into real and accessible treatments.

"AIDS has never just about medical science; it has always been about social justice as well," she said. "We need treatment, not prosecution."

There were an estimated 33.4 million people in the world living with HIV-AIDS at the end of 2008. In the same year, there were an estimated 2.7 million new infections and two million AIDS-related deaths, according to UNAIDS.