Asia Facing Enormous
Explosion Of AIDS

MELBOURNE, Australia (AFP) - Asia risks an explosion of HIV infection unless governments wake up to the problem, a report released on the eve of the Sixth International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) warns.
The report, released Thursday, warns there is clear potential for an extensive spread of HIV if preventive action is too little or too late.
Early and large-scale preventive action has kept prevalence low in parts of Asia but according to "Status and Trends of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Asia and the Pacific," these low HIV infection rates do not necessarily mean rates will remain low forever.
"Some countries in the region began prevention efforts early and they are reaping the benefits today," Peter Piot, executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), said.
"Elsewhere, however, epidemics will continue their natural course unless prevention programmes quickly reach the population groups most vulnerable to
"HIV related stigma and discrimination remain an immense barrier to effectively fighting the most devastating epidemic humanity has ever known," Piot added.
Although only three Asian countries -- Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand -- have registered nationwide prevalence rates of over one percent, the report says these low rates mask an uneven geographic spread.
It says that national figures are meaningless in huge countries like China and India, where some states or provinces have larger populations than most of the world's countries.
The report, published by Monitoring the AIDS Pandemic (MAP), an international network of HIV experts, warns that recent HIV increases in specific locations should be seen as a serious warning of a more widespread epidemic.
In the Guangxi province in China, 9.9 percent of sex workers were found to have HIV in the second quarter of 2000 but the figure rose to 10.7 percent by the fourth quarter.
And in Vietnam, infection levels are rising quickly, in some cases exponentially.
In Ho Chi Minh City, HIV infection rates among sex workers and their clients increased from virtually nil in 1996 to more than 20 percent in 2000.
Recent data from Indonesia -- where for many years the epidemic was virtually undetectable -- also shows a significant increase in HIV.
Indonesia has recorded a jump in HIV among sex workers from six percent to 26 percent in three centres, with several recorded HIV outbreaks among injecting drug users around the country.
Nationally, the proportion of blood donors infected -- in this context, an indication of HIV spread in the population at large -- increased significantly, from almost nothing in the early 1990s to one per 1,000 in
HIV infection among pregnant women, often used as an indicator of HIV penetration into the general population, is also quite significant in some countries.
The report warns that China, Indonesia and Vietnam are in a transitional phase and may be on the brink of potentially explosive epidemics.
And it calls for prevention programmes targeting the general population to be put in place alongside programmes for high-risk groups.
Professor Anthony Smith from the Australian Research Centre on Sex, Health and Society said sexual inequality was eroding efforts to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Asian-Pacific region.
"In a country like India, for example, culturally-held ideas about gender frame the way in which HIV/AIDS prevention programs are developed and implemented," he added.
India has 3.7 million people infected with HIV/AIDS, out of a total of 6.4 million people for all Asia and the Pacific.

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