NEW YORK -- Around the globe yesterday, leaders, activists, and victims used World AIDS Day to send the message that far stronger action is needed in the battle against the disease that kills millions of people every year.
The United Nation's special envoy for AIDS in Africa proposed that big business dedicate a portion of profits to the fight; President Jacques Chirac of France suggested schools install condom vending machines; and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India called on people to talk openly about safe sex.
The number of people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has reached its highest level with an estimated 40.3 million people, UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot said. Nearly half of them are women.
''We must do far, far more," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said. ''It is time to recognize that although our response so far has succeeded in some of the particulars, it has yet to match the epidemic in scale."
Others, including President Bush, noted the progress that has been made. Speaking in Washington, he said US efforts were helping 400,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa get treatment.
With just over 10 percent of the world's population, sub-Saharan Africa is home to more than 60 percent of all people infected with HIV. Africa saw about 3.2 million of the almost 5 million new infections recorded so far in 2005.
''These countries, and many others, are fighting for the lives of their citizens, and America is now their strongest partner in that fight," he said. The 400,000 getting treatment, he said, was up from 50,000 two years ago.
However, critics including senior UN officials say Bush's emphasis on abstinence-only programs has hobbled efforts by playing down the role of condoms.
Taking up the cause of promoting condom use to prevent infection with the HIV virus, officials in Buenos Aires covered the city's most famous landmark, the obelisk, with a giant pink condom.
''It seemed like we could have the biggest impact by putting a condom on the most important symbol of the city," said Sandra Castillo, an organizer of the campaign.
AIDS killed 66,000 Latin Americans in the past year, according to a UN report.
From Vatican City, Pope Benedict XVI said programs based on promoting abstinence and marital fidelity were seeing success, saying ''statistics taken in several regions of Africa confirm the results of policies based on continence, the promotion of faithfulness in marriage, and the importance of family life."
But the pope did not specify the regions or the statistics, and he avoided a specific mention of the Roman Catholic Church's controversial ban on condoms.
''The international response to HIV and AIDS was woefully slow. This is one of the scars on the conscience of our generation," said UN General Assembly President Jan Eliasson in remarks prepared for a ceremony in New York.
''We cannot turn back the clock. But we must ensure that when historians look at the way the world responded to HIV and AIDS, they see that 2006 was the year when the international community finally stepped up to the mark," he said.
''This vast human tragedy is all the more unacceptable because it could have been avoided."
In New York, activists stood by City Hall and solemnly read the names of deceased AIDS victims aloud. The Empire State Building, typically lit in bright holiday hues of red and green at this time of year, was set to go dark for 15 minutes to mark World AIDS Day.
Stephen Lewis, UN special envoy for AIDS in Africa, called upon major corporations to contribute 0.7 percent of pretax profits to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS.
The fund ''is in terrible trouble" after increases promised by the Group of 8 industrialized nations in July failed to materialize, he said.
''We need a new source of dollars," he said in a statement. ''That source must be the private sector."
The United Nations has long called on wealthy nations to donate 0.7 percent of gross domestic product for development aid every year.
African AIDS patients criticized politicians for failing to take adequate measures. ''Money earmarked for HIV/AIDS has gone into everything else but AIDS," said Meris Kafusi, a 64-year-old AIDS patient in Tanzania who only recently began receiving life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs that are widespread in the West.
''Organizations that say they are dealing with AIDS are always in seminars or workshops. They should be buying food for widows and orphans. . . . Is this fair?"
Lobby group Africa Action targeted pharmaceutical companies. ''The prices charged by pharmaceutical companies, and the policies pursued by rich countries at their behest, continue to keep life-saving treatment out of reach for those most affected by HIV/AIDS," said Salih Booker, Africa Action's executive director.
In India, which says it has 5.13 million people with HIV/AIDS, Singh called on people to shed the inhibitions that keep them from talking about sex. ''This, quite obviously, has to change if we are to succeed in creating awareness of the hazards of unsafe sexual practices," he said.