By Kate Kelland, Health and Science Correspondent
LONDON (Reuters) - Reduced funds from rich donor nations to treat HIV/AIDS in poorer nations will ultimately lead to more graves and higher care costs for people who get sick while they wait for drugs, a leading charity said on Thursday.
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said political budget choices made by rich countries who are either freezing or cutting overseas aid money for HIV treatment programs were already starting to affect AIDS patients and putting lives at risk.
"Unless they are reversed, these policies and decisions will impede the progress of the fight against AIDS for the years to come," MSF's Sharonann Lynch told reporters at a briefing.
The medical charity published a report ahead of a major international conference on AIDS which starts in Vienna on Sunday in which it set out "the 10 consequences of AIDS treatment delayed, deferred, or denied."
The report suggested that far from cutting back on treatment projects in high-risk developing regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, donors should recognize that investing now in earlier treatment for more patients would pay off later.
"In light of the financial crisis, donors may be tempted to walk away from their commitments to provide universal access to AIDS treatment," it said. "But these policies are short-sighted and fail to take into account long-term payoffs, including savings in economic terms, as well as increased quality of life and quality outcomes."
MSF criticized the German government, which it said was planning to cut its donations to the Global Fund to fight AIDS to a third of previous levels, offering just 200 million euros ($256 million).
It also hit out at Austria, which despite hosting the 2010 AIDS conference had always refused to pledge money to the Global Fund and was still doing so.
The United States, too, was "flatlining" funding for AIDS treatment, MSF said.
An estimated 33 million people around the world are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, and more than half of the 9.5 million people who need AIDS drugs cannot get them, according to the United Nations. The Global Fund has a $20 billion funding gap that it will be seeking to close at a replenishment conference due in October.
MSF said evidence showed that getting AIDS drugs to people with HIV before they get too ill meant they needed fewer expensive doctors and hospitals later on. It also helps slow the spread of the virus, which is mainly transmitted via sex, by reducing the viral load of those who are HIV positive.
Its report cited data from various studies, including one from rural Thyolo, a district of Malawi, where the charity helps provide HIV services through health clinics.
It said that in Thyolo district, universal access to treatment and care has been reached -- meaning at least eight out of 10 people in who need AIDS drugs get them.
Because of this, a 37 percent reduction in the district's death rate was measured between 2000 and 2007 in death registers, coffin sales and church funerals.
Death rates decreased over time as ART coverage increased, MSF said, and an estimated 10,156 deaths were averted in the district over an eight-year period.
"We're at a fork in the road: either governments summon the political will and financial resources to treat AIDS in developing countries, or current funding for AIDS treatment stagnates," says Tido von Schoen-Angerer, an MSF campaign director. "It's a question of choice: if they don't help us treat AIDS, there will be more graves."
(Editing by Myra MacDonald)