Asia must break down taboos about sex and stop discrimination if it is to halt the world’s fastest growing HIV rates, an expert warns, with half of all new cases in the continent occurring in young people between 14 and 24 years of age.
Professor Myung-Hwan Cho, President of the AIDS Society of Asia and the Pacific, said Asia’s 8.3 million HIV cases were dwarfed by Africa’s 23 million, but that the disease was spreading faster in Asia than anywhere else in the world.
“In Asia, preventing the disease is particularly difficult for cultural reasons,” he told Reuters late on Tuesday at the launch of a major international conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific to be held in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo next year.
“Talking about sex is taboo. Educating people to use condoms is difficult,” he said. “But we need to educate young people. Fifty percent of all people infected in Asia last year were aged between 14 and 24.”
Most seriously affected were Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and India, he said, with some five million of India’s one billion population now believed to be HIV positive. China officially had some 800,000 with HIV, he said, although the real figure could be much higher.
“The Chinese government do not want to speak out,” said the Korean scientist, whose group includes a range of AIDS bodies and professional associations. “But there are many intravenous drug users. In south China in particular, the HIV rate is very high.”
Reducing the stigma attached to HIV was crucial in encouraging people to come forward and talk about the disease, he said. In many parts of the region, admitting HIV positive status can leave a whole family as social pariahs.
“Refusal of employment, refusal of healthcare and refusing of education for children,” he said. “I appeal to attorney generals and human rights commissions to push for legislation to make this illegal.”
Sri Lanka, which currently has one of the lowest HIV rates in Asia, also had to be aware of the risks if it was to avoid following India, he said. Sri Lanka has currently identified 743 HIV cases out of a population of 20 million, but officials believe the real number is nearer 5,000.
But although Asia would find it difficult to stem the spread of AIDS in the next decade, Myung-Hwan Cho said he believed the continent would avoid the adult infection rates of 20-40 percent seen in some parts of southern Africa such as Swaziland and Lesotho.
“It’s hard to say if will reach that point of 20-30 percent,” he said. “I hope we will not. The situation here is difficult. The economies are better than in Africa and there is less political turmoil.”
Revision date: July 5, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD