DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) – The virus that causes AIDS is spreading again in Western Europe and is rampaging through Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where it infected 250,000 people last year, a United Nations health official said Monday.

Eastern Europe and Central Asia are experiencing the fastest-growing HIV epidemic in the world, said Peter Piot, the executive director of the U.N. AIDS organization.

In 1998, Piot noted, there were only 30,000 people known to be infected with HIV in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. That figure has since risen to 1.5 million, he said.

Piot released the statistics during the opening session of a two-day conference intended to rally financial and political support for the fight against HIV/AIDS.

He chided West European nations for easing prevention campaigns after the introduction in the 1990s of antiretroviral drugs that slow the progression of HIV infection.

Western European AIDS death rates fell to 3,500 last year from more than 20,000 in 1996. But Western Europe registered 30,000 to 40,000 new infections last year, which Piot termed an “unacceptable occurrence for one of the richest regions in the world.”

The conference was the first international forum to discuss the effect of the disease on Europe and its eastern neighbors, bringing together representatives of 55 nations as well as Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and the Irish rock star and rights activist Bob Geldof.

According to a draft of a declaration to be issued Tuesday, the conference will make a commitment that by 2005 “at least 80 percent of injecting drug users” in all of Europe and Central Asia must be in HIV treatment or prevention programs.

In Washington, President Bush unveiled a 5-year $15 billion emergency plan aimed at turning the tide in the global fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

The plan targets $9 billion in new funding to speed up prevention, treatment and care services in 14 of the most affected countries representing at least 50 percent of HIV infections worldwide.

All but one of the countries is in sub-Sahara Africa. The 14th country is Haiti and a 15th, outside Africa and the Caribbean, is to be named later.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern urged his European Union partners to make the fight against HIV-AIDS part of EU development and health policies.

“Developed countries are good at recommending to our African colleagues what they should do,” Ahern said. “We must not delude ourselves that HIV/AIDS is an exclusively African problem.”

Irish Development Minister Tom Kitt said the EU should adopt a far more coherent and strategic approach to the fight against HIV/AIDS in all of the world’s regions.

He called for an EU ambassador to coordinate Europe’s contribution to the fight against a disease that has gone global in 20 years and now affects 40 million people worldwide.

He said EU governments must push drugs companies to provide cheap anti-HIV/AIDS medicine to poor countries. The costs of these drugs have come down drastically – from $20,000 per person per year a decade ago to $500.

In Eastern Europe, the drugs fetch “the highest prices in the world,” Piot said, but he did not give an amount.

Overall AIDS fatalities have fallen sharply in Western Europe since the mid-1990s because of the availability of antiretroviral treatments.

Eastern Europe and Central Asia, however, offer a bleak outlook. Worst off are Russia, Ukraine and soon-to-be EU members Estonia and Latvia. HIV continues to spread in Belarus, Moldova and Kazakhstan, and “epidemics are now evident in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan,” according to a U.N. report.

The World Bank reported last fall that efforts to curb HIV/AIDS in the region are too small to have an effect, adding that prevention and care programs require an increase in funding from $300 million in 2001 to $1.5 billion by 2007.

The U.N. Development Program said last week that one of every 100 adults in Russia, Ukraine and Estonia carries HIV. It reported more than 257,000 HIV cases in Russia in 2003, more than 7,500 of them among children. But experts estimate the actual number of infected Russians is between 700,000 and 1.5 million.

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