U.N.: Asia Needs To Act On AIDS

Asia risks having 12 million new HIV infections over the next five years but could halve that number if it acts fast enough to fight the virus among vulnerable groups such as drug users, sex workers and men who have sex with men, a UNAIDS report said Friday.

The U.N. AIDS agency's report also warned that HIV/AIDS funding for the Asia-Pacific region — home to more than half the world's population — falls far short of the estimated $5 billion needed by 2007 to slow the disease.

"Some of these factors include the perception in the general public and among the leadership that AIDS is not something that will ever affect Asia or the Pacific in a big way," UNAIDS head Peter Piot said ahead of the Seventh International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific in Kobe, Japan.

Reaching communities of men who have sex with men is especially pressing for Asia, where they are often ignored. This group consists of gay or bisexual men — as well as heterosexual males who have sex with other men for money or other reasons.

Vietnam's government, for example, does not formally recognize that such men exist, and many people think of them as a "social evil," said Le Cao Dung of the Ho Chi Minh City provincial AIDS Committee.

While most Asian countries still have low national HIV prevalence rates, the UNAIDS report said such figures can be deceiving.

Because of the region's immense size and population, the number of people living with the virus is higher in some Asian countries than in some sub-Saharan Africa nations.

India has nearly the same number of people living with HIV as the world's hardest-hit nation, South Africa, with just over 5 million cases. However, India's national percentage of adults with the virus is still less than 1 percent, compared to more than 20 percent in South Africa.

"We have been very wrong about HIV/AIDS, and we have been especially wrong about HIV/AIDS in Asia," Richard Feachem, head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said at the conference's opening ceremony.

"We said it was a gay man's epidemic, and we were wrong. We said it was an African epidemic, and we were wrong. We said it couldn't happen in Asia, and we were wrong."

To keep new cases from ballooning by 2010, the report said countries must focus more on vulnerable groups, such as migrating populations, men who have sex with men, injecting drug users and even truck drivers. On one route in India, a 2002 study found that 16 percent of the truck drivers were HIV-positive, it said.

Piot said some Asian countries, like Thailand and Cambodia, were hit hard in the early years but have successfully curbed new infections. But growing numbers of new cases in Indonesia, Nepal, Vietnam and several Chinese provinces are troubling, he said.

"Unfortunately, throughout the region there are more examples of countries where the epidemic is expanding than of countries where the epidemic is being brought under control," Piot said.

"In order to get ahead of the epidemic, AIDS must be seen in a new light," he said.

Piot urged Asia's leaders to be more vocal in fighting HIV's spread and reducing its stigma — one of the biggest challenges facing people living with HIV/AIDS in the region.

"Personally, I feel we are treated as a disease and not as a person," said Frika Chia Iskandar, an HIV-positive woman who spoke during the conference opening. "I'm also afraid ... and still, I'm standing here."

There were an estimated 8.2 million people living with the virus in Asia and the Pacific last year — about 1.2 million of whom were newly infected in 2004 — second only to sub-Saharan Africa.