UNITED NATIONS — In an unprecedented session, the U.N. General Assembly debated the acquired immune deficiency syndrome Tuesday and heard Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar call the epidemic a "global conflict" that "threatens us with all the consequences of war."
Top World Health Organization officials said the discussion, apparently the first devoted exclusively to a health issue in the assembly's history, heralded an "explosion" of openness and international cooperation in the fight against the deadly disease.
"That we are gathered here to discuss AIDS is itself a historic moment," said Dr. Jonathan Mann, director of the WHO's Special Program on AIDS. "We are assuming our collective and historical responsibility to take action now against a worldwide epidemic whose ultimate scope and dimensions we cannot yet predict."
'A True Milestone'
"I consider it a true milestone in adding to the awareness of the AIDS problem," said Dr. Halfdan Mahler, the WHO's director-general. There has "been an absolutely superb kind of openness explosion."
The assembly debate, which included an address by U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, was part of a well-orchestrated campaign to gain unanimous support from the United Nation's 159 member nations for an AIDS prevention and control resolution, which is expected to be voted on today.
The largely symbolic resolution, drafted by the Australian delegation, underscores the need for international cooperation in fighting AIDS and endorses the leadership role the WHO has increasingly assumed over the last year. The statement has 32 additional sponsors, including the United States, the Soviet Union, Brazil, Britain, France and Haiti.
The resolution is expected to help the WHO raise about $45 million it says it needs through the end of 1988 to support international AIDS control and to discourage the world's richer nations from launching bilateral AIDS initiatives that might conflict with the WHO's programs.
In a strongly worded opening speech, Perez de Cuellar set the tone of the assembly debate. "AIDS is one of those critical issues, like nuclear weapons, global development and environmental pollution, which affects the future of all people's in all countries," he said.
Calling AIDS "the plague that knows no boundaries," he warned that "any effort by a country to attempt to isolate itself from all others offers only a delusion of protection, and not a reality."
Other speakers, including Koop and John Moore, the British secretary of state for health and social security, echoed these themes and pledged that their nations would cooperate fully with WHO programs.
But some of the practical difficulties in actually obtaining this cooperation were illustrated at a press conference, when Mahler threw up his hands when asked about the nearly $85 million the United States still owes the WHO to support its overall 1986-87 budget. As part of a general cutback in funding for U.N. agencies, the United States has sent the WHO only about $40 million in the last two years, compared to the $124 million that was agreed upon in 1985, Mahler said.
"I am not able to understand," Mahler said of the ongoing discussions with the United States about its contributions to the WHO's 1986-87 and 1988-89 budgets. "We have not the slightest assurance of what type of contribution we will get from the richest country in the world."
In other developments, WHO officials said that 149 nations have now formed national AIDS commissions. Of these countries, 109 have requested the Geneva-based WHO to assist them in developing AIDS control programs and more than 50 have formulated written AIDS control plans.
As of Tuesday, 126 countries have reported a total of 62,438 AIDS cases to the WHO. This marks an 85% increase from January, 1986, when only 69 nations had reported cases but many nations, primarily in Africa and Latin America, continue to report only a fraction of their cases.