The risk of AIDS spreading in Asia is higher than ever and there is a danger of an “explosion” of the deadly disease if prevention efforts are not intensified now, the top United Nations AIDS official said on Friday.
One in four new infections occurs in Asia, with the disease having spread to all provinces of China amid its economic boom and India with the world’s second-highest number of HIV/AIDS patients after South Africa.
World health officials and AIDS activists called for increased prevention efforts and access to cheap medicine as an international Asia-Pacific AIDS conference opened in the western Japanese city of Kobe on Friday, emphasizing the need for increased political will to fight the epidemic - which they said is often lacking in Asia in particular.
Japan’s health minister, scheduled to attend, was unable to make it. A ministry official gave his speech instead.
In Asia, the AIDS epidemic is still mainly found among vulnerable groups such as homosexuals, injecting drug users and sex workers, but it could spread to the general population unless intense efforts are made, said Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, the U.N. agency devoted to fighting the epidemic.
“When I look at what’s going on in many countries in Asia there’s a vicious cocktail of risk factors,” Piot told Reuters before the conference began.
“An explosive cocktail of risk factors that mean that if ‘business as usual’ continues there will undoubtedly be an explosion of AIDS,” he added.
Low condom use, limited access to HIV testing, gender inequality, widespread injecting drug use, and sex work could lead to a rapid expansion of the deadly disease.
“If ‘business as usual’ continues in terms of responding to AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, within the next five years 12 million people will be newly infected with HIV,” he said.
With hard work over the next two years it could be reduced to six million, but it would require major political will, he said.
Conference participants also called for the eradication of stigma and discrimination, which prevents many from getting proper treatment or even being tested.
“We are not only afraid of the fire in our blood, but also of the fires in peoples’ minds,” said Frika Chia Iskandar, an HIV positive activist.
Around 1,500 people in the Asia-Pacific region die of AIDS, and 3,500 are newly infected, each day, according to the World Health Organization.
The U.N. estimates that 8.2 million people live with HIV in Asia, some 5.1 million of them in India. The Chinese government says there are 840,000 patients in China.
Worldwide, about 39 million people have HIV/AIDS, including 25 million in sub-Saharan Africa.
But targeted prevention programs are reaching only 19 percent of sex workers and 5 percent of injecting drug users in Asia. The figure for homosexual men is no higher than 2 percent.
Funding to fight AIDS in the region is seen rising to roughly $1.6 billion by 2007, but this is still far from sufficient, UNAIDS said in a report on Friday, estimating that $5 billion will be needed.
Asia’s vast cultural and political differences complicate the battle. Blood-selling scandals were initially covered up in China.
There are other common threads, such as a need to promote the use of condoms, educating sex workers and injecting drug users to the dangers of the disease, and empowering women, who make up more than half of the new HIV infections worldwide.
Even affluent and well-educated Japan is at risk due to a lack of awareness, official apathy and the stigma that prevents many from being tested.
The number of Japanese cases is still relatively low at 10,070 over the last decade, giving Japan, along with nations such as the Philippines, a chance to ward off a serious outbreak.
Piot said, though, that there have been encouraging signs in several nations, including Thailand and Cambodia as well as China, which is now stepping up its fight against the disease after an initially slow start.
“We must not lose sight of the fact that 99 percent of people and the Pacific remain uninfected,” he added. “Effective prevention programs must be scaled up now more than ever.”
Revision date: July 9, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD