AIDS Fight in Asia Hurt by Instability

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By RAVI NESSMAN
The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 22, 2007; 9:45 AM

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Growing political instability, stigmatization of those infected and conservative social attitudes are hampering the fight against the spread of HIV in Asia, a top regional AIDS official said Monday.

Nearly a half-million people in Asia and the Pacific are infected with HIV every year and as many as 300,000 of those infected die _ more than the total killed in the 2004 tsunami, said Prasada Rao, UNAIDS regional director.

"The harsh reality is that the grim march of the epidemic in our region continues unabated," he told the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific.

About 2,500 government officials, AIDS activists and health professionals from around the region gathered in Colombo for the five-day conference.

An estimated 5.4 million people in the region are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. While that number is far below the infection rate in Africa, Asia's huge population has led to concerns that an AIDS pandemic could erupt here as well if strong action is not taken.

While India and Thailand have been the focus of recent international efforts, Rao expressed fears that China, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh could be the next battlegrounds.

"These are large countries and they have the potential of an epidemic to take root, so they need a strong program," he said.

There has been some success, Rao said, pointing to a major campaign in India that help either stabilize or bring down the HIV-infection rate in the worst affected regions.

But there are also disturbing trends, including continued attacks by opponents of condom use and sex education, he said.

"There is no doubt anymore that condoms continue to be the only effective prevention tool available for protection against HIV, yet opposition to its promotion continues in many countries," he said.

In India, as many as 11 state governments have banned or are banning sex education in schools, and they are facing little opposition from civic groups, he said.

"It's baffling, really. Why should this happen?" he told The Associated Press.

A new wave of conflicts in the region is also hampering prevention and treatment efforts, he said. Two years ago, at the last regional AIDS conference, only Nepal was mired in significant conflict, he said. Now, eight more countries have fallen into political instability and conflict.

The war in Afghanistan has also indirectly contributed to the spread of the disease, he said. The increase in the cultivation of poppies used to make heroin has helped fuel intravenous drug use _ the second leading cause of the spread of HIV in the region, he said.

Others also warned of potential pitfalls in the fight.

Nafis Sadik, special U.N. envoy on HIV/AIDS in Asia, said many issues of fear, stigmatization and ignorance are being ignored.


© 2007 The Associated Press

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