July 5, 2005

Chance to reverse Asia AIDS epidemic could be lost

By Elaine Lies

KOBE, Japan (Reuters) - An international AIDS conferenceended here on Tuesday with warnings that a window ofopportunity to reverse the epidemic in Asia, where an explosionof the disease may loom, is closing rapidly and urgent actionis needed.

One in four new infections occurs in Asia, home to morethan half the world's people, and 1,500 in the region die fromthe disease each day. AIDS has spread to all provinces inChina, while the number of HIV/AIDS patients in India is secondonly to South Africa.

The United Nations warns that 12 million people could benewly infected with HIV in Asia over the next five years ifprevention programs are not scaled up, but that half thatnumber may be saved if action is taken now.

"In a region where 1,500 people die each day because ofAIDS, the window of opportunity to reverse the epidemic isclosing fast," said J.V.R. Prasada Rao, regional director ofthe UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific.

"But that shrinking window can be held open by politicalwill," he told the closing session of the 7th InternationalConference on AIDS in the Asia-Pacific, held in the westernJapanese city of Kobe.

"Where this political will already exists, our challenge isto maintain it. Where it is lacking, we must mobilize it."

Non-governmental organizations at the conference, though,said that governments and organizations like theirs needed towork together to make programs work properly.

The United Nations estimates 8.2 million people areinfected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in Asia,about 5.1 million of them in India. The Chinese government saysthere are 840,000 patients in China.

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


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 in Asia.

Targeted prevention programs, however, 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.

While HIV/AIDS patients in advanced countries have accessto life-saving drugs that can stave off the development andprogress of the illness for years, such treatment is beyond thereach of many patients in developing nations.

The World Health Organization set a target of having 3million people on treatment worldwide by the end of 2005, butit said last week that the goal was unlikely to be met.

"We cannot let this flow through our fingers while ourbrothers and sisters continue to die," said Maura Mea, anHIV-positive activist from Papua New Guinea.

The consequences of AIDS in poor countries are widespread.More than 1.5 million children in Asia and the Pacific havebeen orphaned by the disease, requiring urgent protection andcare, the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) said on Sunday.

Affluent, well-educated host nation Japan still has arelatively low number of infections, but experts say generalapathy could lead to an explosion of cases over the nextdecade.

Organizers highlighted that situation, pointing out thatwhile several health ministers from Asian countries attended,Japan's own health minister did not take part.

"With a growing number of infections among young people andmen who have sex with men, Japan should intensify sex educationin schools and prevention efforts in general," Rao said.

"AIDS is no longer a foreign problem. Today it is aJapanese problem as well."