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Elton John blasts 'bigoted' nations for hampering AIDS fight

Elton John Tuesday blasted Russia and eastern Europe governments for "discrimination against gays" saying such bigotry was thwarting the fight against AIDS.

In a sharp tirade at the second day of a major conference, John, a seasoned AIDS campaigner, gave voice to years of frustration and spoke of the plight of gays oppressed in many nations.

"If there wasn't this bigotry and hatred, then this disease could be eliminated far quicker than you could ever think," John told reporters at the 22nd International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam.

"Basically what it comes down to is that these countries are discriminating very badly against LGBT people," he said, slamming governments for limiting access for lesbian, gay, transgender and bi-sexual people to testing and treatment programmes.

"And it's holding us back, and until we can get that... idea out of our heads that gay people are lesser, then I'm afraid we will still be sitting here in 20 years discussing the same thing."

- Young men at risk -

John's rant came just hours after he teamed up with Britain's Prince Harry to launch a $1.2 billion initiative (about a billion euros) to "break the cycle" of HIV transmission.

Dubbed the "MenStar Coalition", it is targeted at young men, among whom infections are on the rise.

Scientists highlighted the importance of stopping infections at the source -- usually through sex or blood contact -- as they announced disappointing results in the quest for an AIDS cure.

"Young people are the only age group where HIV infections are rising, not falling," warned the 71-year-old Elton John, whose foundation has raised some $400 million in the quarter century since it was set up in 1992.

"We have to do much, much more to bring men, especially younger men, more fully into the fold," thereby also shielding their sexual partners, he insisted.

The celebrity duo lent their mega-wattage to efforts to end the lingering stigma around HIV, as young people born with the virus attended the conference to talk about their struggles.

Some 37 million people live with HIV today, and about 1.8 million new infections were recorded last year.

John, who has seen loved ones die of AIDS, insisted the disease could be eliminated with political will.

Some 15,000 delegates -- researchers, campaigners, activists and people living with the HIV virus which causes AIDS -- were gathered in the Dutch capital for the five-day conference amid warnings the AIDS epidemic could yet spiral out of control.

A key worry is a sharp uptick in new infections in eastern Europe and central Asia, mainly through intravenous drug use in countries where people with no access to clean needles have to share tainted ones.

Another worry is homophobia, with people shying away from HIV prevention services for fear of stigmatisation.

"Eastern Europe has been a neglected place and it's very homophobic, the LGBT community have a very hard time there," John told AFP.

- Disappointments -

As the quest for better treatment continues, scientists reported worrying cases of birth defects among women using a promising new drug.

And they said a "feminising" hormone therapy appears to lower concentrations of virus-suppressing medicine in the blood of users.

A trial to test a new strategy to "kick" the AIDS-causing HIV virus out of its hiding place in human cells, then "kill" it, also had a disappointing outcome.

Experts this week warned that the epidemic which has killed 35 million people so far may resurge because of political "apathy" and a resultant shortage of funding.

Among them are men aged 24 to 35 who are accessing HIV testing and treatment at "unacceptably low rates," said John.

"The progress we have fought so hard for is at risk from a dangerous complacency," Prince Harry warned.

His initiative with John was "inspired by the growing alarm of the rate of new HIV infections among young women" and aimed at "bravely tackling the root of this problem -- the lack of awareness of HIV prevention amongst hard-to-reach young men."

South African actress Charlize Theron raised a flag for women.

The AIDS epidemic is "not just about sex or sexuality," she said. "We know it is linked to the second-class status of women and girls worldwide."

UNAIDS estimates the global fight is short some $7 billion per year.

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