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Protesters Disrupt Thompson's Remarks at AIDS Conference

Demonstration: To address the 14th such international forum, the U.S. health secretary must overcome a hail of jeers and whistles.


BARCELONA, Spain — In a scene reminiscent of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, activists stormed the stage Tuesday and obstructed a speech by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson at the 14th International AIDS Conference.

Thompson stoically delivered his 20-minute talk, but the only people who heard it were the security men who separated him from the demonstrators.

"We know what he is going to say, and we are tired of his lies," said Asia Russell of ACT UP, one of the organizers of the demonstration.

Italian activists later shut down a large booth run by U.S. drug company Gilead Sciences, protesting that the company would communicate with only physicians in Italy.

Another group had shut down a booth run by Hoffmann-La Roche on Monday. The activists are planning a protest against Coca-Cola today because the company, one of the largest employers in Africa, does not provide AIDS health care to all its employees.

Thompson had gotten only a few words out of his mouth Tuesday when about 25 protesters broke into the room, blowing shrill whistles and shouting, "Shame, shame!"

Thompson stopped talking and, after about 15 minutes, the protesters left. But when he began speaking again, they returned, resuming their loud activities with an assist from some members of the audience.

This time, Thompson finished his speech, took a sip of water and walked off the stage. After he left, other speakers were able to deliver their talks without problems.

"The United States is passionately committed to this international fight," Thompson told reporters backstage.

"I understand that people are passionate about this and want to blame the United States," he said. "But the United States under President Bush has doubled the amount of resources it provides for the fight against AIDS."

The activists charge that the U.S. contribution to a new global AIDS fund, as well as to other international and national programs, is pitifully low. Russell said that as a proportion of its gross national product, the United States' contribution is even less than that of Uganda, the East African nation that is one of the world's poorest countries.

The administration's 2001 budget for international HIV/AIDS efforts was $726 million, and the proposed budget for next year is $1.3 billion. UNAIDS, the United Nations' program on HIV/AIDS, projects that at least $10 billion a year is necessary for AIDS programs, but it has so far received commitments of less than $3 billion for this year.

Activists are also incensed by the Bush administration's opposition to needle exchange programs, which are a proven method of preventing the spread of AIDS, and by its insistence on abstinence as the primary goal of prevention programs.

Thompson was accompanied to Barcelona by Dr. Louis Sullivan, who held the same job during the administration of George H.W. Bush. Sullivan spoke at the San Francisco International AIDS Conference in 1990 and was jeered loudly then. Thompson is the only U.S. Cabinet-level official to have attended an overseas AIDS conference.

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