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French First Lady Joins Global Fight Against AIDS

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PARIS — France's glamorous first lady threw her considerable star power behind the global fight against AIDS on Monday, as the world tallied the victims of the HIV virus that infects a new person every 15 seconds.

As ceremonies marked World AIDS Day, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy signed on to become a goodwill ambassador for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which said it has provided lifesaving treatment to two million people living with HIV worldwide.

"I think the world has become used to AIDS," the model-turned-singer told a news conference in Paris. "We no longer see it as a scandal or an emergency."

Bruni-Sarkozy, who lost her brother Virginio to AIDS two years ago, said her work will focus on helping women and children infected with HIV, the virus that causes the disease. She pledged to fight the stigma that is still attached to AIDS in many countries.

"There is no greater cruelty than to be excluded from your own family and your own community because you are infected with a deadly disease," she said.

Some 500,000 children are born each year infected with HIV and 290,000 of them died in 2007 as a result, the Global Fund said. With access to antiretroviral drugs, the risk of virus transmission from an HIV-positive mother to her baby can be slashed to less than five percent, it added.

Bruni-Sarkozy said she would divert the constant media attention she has attracted since her whirlwind wedding to President Nicolas Sarkozy this year toward the battle against AIDS. She also planned to tap her extensive contacts in the music and fashion industries for fundraising.

Irish singer and activist Bono called her appointment "a great coup" for the Global Fund.

An estimated 33 million people worldwide are infected with the HIV virus, the vast majority of them in Africa, but no country is spared.

In a rare government disclosure, Iran said Monday it has registered more than 18,000 HIV-positive citizens and estimated the true number of infected to be as high as 100,000.

China _ which for years also covered up the disease _ vowed to do more to tackle the stigma. The government promised to strengthen education about AIDS prevention, increase condom distribution and do more to reach high-risk groups. An estimated 700,000 Chinese have the virus.

The rate of HIV infection in Europe almost doubled between 2000 and 2007, reaching the highest level ever recorded in the region, the health agencies of the U.N. and European Union said in a report.

South Africa has an estimated 5.5 million people living with the HIV virus _ the highest total of any country. About 1,000 South Africans die each day of the disease and complications like tuberculosis. Even more become infected because prevention messages have not worked.

Yet for years, the South African government of former President Thabo Mbeki played down the extent of the crisis. Mbeki himself doubted the link between HIV and AIDS. His health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, openly mistrusted conventional AIDS drugs and instead promoted the value of lemons, garlic, beetroot and the African potato.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health last month calculated that government delays in introducing AIDS drugs between 2000 and 2005 cost more than 330,000 lives in South Africa.

"We have to mourn the lives of those we have not saved," said Barbara Hogan, the health minister who replaced Tshabalala-Msimang after Mbeki was ousted in October.

She promised to improve HIV treatment and prevention programs, and to increase the supply of drugs to HIV positive women to stop them from passing the virus on to their unborn children.

The top U.N. official dealing with the disease, Peter Piot, joined South African political leaders and hundreds of activists to show his support for the new administration. Church bells tolled and workers put down their tools as South Africa observed a minute of silence for AIDS victims.

The South African government wants to halve new infections by 2011 and ensure that 80 percent of those with the disease get treatment and care.

But it faces a mammoth task. The Global Fund has rejected a South African request for nearly $92 million over the next two years for AIDS projects and $68 million for TB prevention and treatment.

AIDS advocates accused the country's former health minister of failing to respect the fund's strict operating rules.

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Associated Press correspondents Ali Akbar Dareini in Iran, Gillian Wong in China and Claire Nullis in South Africa contributed to this report.