July 1, 2005

Asia in danger of AIDS explosion, U.N. warns

By Elaine Lies

KOBE, Japan (Reuters) - The risk of AIDS spreading in Asiais higher than ever and there is a danger of an "explosion" ofthe deadly disease if prevention efforts are not intensifiednow, the top United Nations AIDS official said on Friday.

One in four new infections occurs in Asia, with the diseasehaving spread to all provinces of China amid its economic boomand India with the world's second-highest number of AIDS/HIVpatients after South Africa.

World health officials and AIDS activists called forincreased prevention efforts and access to cheap medicine as aninternational Asia-Pacific AIDS conference opened in thewestern Japanese city of Kobe on Friday, emphasizing the needfor increased political will to fight the epidemic -- whichthey said is often lacking in Asia in particular.

Japan's health minister, scheduled to attend, was unable tomake it. A ministry official gave his speech instead.

In Asia, the AIDS epidemic is still mainly found amongvulnerable groups such as homosexuals, injecting drug users andsex workers, but it could spread to the general populationunless intense efforts are made, said Peter Piot, executivedirector of UNAIDS, the U.N. agency devoted to fighting theepidemic.

"When I look at what's going on in many countries in Asiathere's a vicious cocktail of risk factors," Piot told Reutersbefore the conference began.

"An explosive cocktail of risk factors that mean that if'business as usual' continues there will undoubtedly be anexplosion of AIDS," he added.

Low condom use, limited access to HIV testing, genderinequality, widespread injecting drug use, and sex work couldlead to a rapid expansion of the deadly disease.

"If 'business as usual' continues in terms of responding toAIDS in Asia and the Pacific, within the next five years 12million people will be newly infected with HIV," he said.


With hard work over the next two years it could be reducedto six million, but it would require major political will, hesaid.

Conference participants also called for the eradication ofstigma and discrimination, which prevents many from gettingproper treatment or even being tested.

"We are not only afraid of the fire in our blood, but alsoof the fires in peoples' minds," said Frika Chia Iskandar, anHIV positive activist.

Around 1,500 people in the Asia-Pacific region die of AIDS,and 3,500 are newly infected, each day, according to the WorldHealth Organization.

The U.N. estimates that 8.2 million people live with HIV inAsia, some 5.1 million of them in India. The Chinese governmentsays there are 840,000 patients in China.

Worldwide, about 39 million people have HIV/AIDS, including25 million in sub-Saharan Africa.

But targeted prevention programs are reaching only 19percent of sex workers and 5 percent of injecting drug users inAsia. The figure for homosexual men is no higher than 2percent.

Funding to fight AIDS in the region is seen rising toroughly $1.6 billion by 2007, but this is still far fromsufficient, UNAIDS said in a report on Friday, estimating that$5 billion will be needed.

Asia's vast cultural and political differences complicatethe battle. Blood-selling scandals were initially covered up inChina.

There are other common threads, such as a need to promotethe use of condoms, educating sex workers and injecting drugusers to the dangers of the disease, and empowering women, whomake up more than half of the new HIV infections worldwide.

Even affluent and well-educated Japan is at risk due to alack of awareness, official apathy and the stigma that preventsmany from being tested.

The number of Japanese cases is still relatively low at10,070 over the last decade, giving Japan, along with nationssuch as the Philippines, a chance to ward off a seriousoutbreak.

Piot said, though, that there have been encouraging signsin several nations, including Thailand and Cambodia as well asChina, which is now stepping up its fight against the diseaseafter an initially slow start.

"We must not lose sight of the fact that 99 percent ofpeople and the Pacific remain uninfected," he added. "Effectiveprevention programs must be scaled up now more than ever."