AIDS Price Tag Soaring In Asia

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The cost of the AIDS epidemic in Asia could jump by more than US$10 billion annually by 2010 unless countries in the region take urgent steps to halt its spread, the Asian Development Bank and United Nations said Thursday.

Failure to bolster current HIV treatment and prevention programs could result in about 10 million more infections by the end of the decade, according to a joint report by UNAIDS and the ADB.

At present about 7.2 million people are living with HIV in the Asia-Pacific region with hundreds of thousands dying each year.

The cost of fighting the epidemic in Asia is expected to soar to US$17.5 billion annually by 2010 from the current US$7 billion if anti-AIDS programs are not improved, the report said.

Some US$1.5 billion is required yearly to contain the AIDS epidemic in Asia, and that amount is expected to increase significantly as more people are diagnosed with the disease, said Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS.

"The cost of inaction, of not acting against AIDS, is very high," Piot said. "The longer one waits, the higher the bill becomes."

The report called for Asian nations to step up their anti-AIDS programs to include, "as a minimum, programs for vulnerable groups and young people, treatment of sexually transmitted infections, condom promotion, the use of disposable syringes and the provision of highly active antiretroviral therapy."

It also highlighted the need for programs to protect women and promote human rights.

The report was released ahead of the 15th International AIDS Conference scheduled to open in Bangkok on Sunday.

The report warned that about 5.6 million people could become poor or fall deeper into poverty every year from 2003 to 2015 "if the epidemic isn't checked now," particularly in Cambodia, India, Thailand and Vietnam.

"Those who are poor are at greater risk of catching the disease, and those with HIV/AIDS are at a much greater risk of being pushed into poverty," said ADB Vice President Geert van der Linden, adding that the AIDS epidemic could undermine a U.N. plan to halve the most severe poverty in the region by 2015.

He said ADB donors recently approved about US$140 million in grants for regional AIDS and health work, but urged governments to do more.

Thailand and China are the only Asian countries that have allocated more than 20 percent of the resources needed to contain the epidemic in their countries, Van der Linden said.

"Asia is at a crossroads," he said. "The Asia-Pacific region has a choice."

By Daniel Lovering