An international AIDS conference ended here on Tuesday with warnings that a window of opportunity to reverse the epidemic in Asia, where an explosion of the disease may loom, is closing rapidly and urgent action is needed.
One in four new infections occurs in Asia, home to more than half the world’s people, and 1,500 in the region die from the disease each day. AIDS has spread to all provinces in China, while the number of HIV/AIDS patients in India is second only to South Africa.
The United Nations warns that 12 million people could be newly infected with HIV in Asia over the next five years if prevention programmes are not scaled up, but that half that number may be saved if action is taken now.
“In a region where 1,500 people die each day because of AIDS, the window of opportunity to reverse the epidemic is closing fast,” said J.V.R. Prasada Rao, regional director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific.
“But that shrinking window can be held open by political will,” he told the closing session of the 7th International Conference on AIDS in the Asia-Pacific, held in the western Japanese city of Kobe.
“Where this political will already exists, our challenge is to maintain it. Where it is lacking, we must mobilise it.”
Non-governmental organisations at the conference, though, said that governments and organisations like theirs needed to work together to make programmes work properly.
The United Nations estimates 8.2 million people are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in Asia, about 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.
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 in Asia.
Targeted prevention programmes, however, 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.
While HIV/AIDS patients in advanced countries have access to life-saving drugs that can stave off the development and progress of the illness for years, such treatment is beyond the reach of many patients in developing nations.
The World Health Organisation set a target of having 3 million people on treatment worldwide by the end of 2005, but it said last week that the goal was unlikely to be met.
“We cannot let this flow through our fingers while our brothers and sisters continue to die,” said Maura Mea, an HIV-positive activist from Papua New Guinea.
The consequences of AIDS in poor countries are widespread. More than 1.5 million children in Asia and the Pacific have been orphaned by the disease, requiring urgent protection and care, the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Sunday.
Affluent, well-educated host nation Japan still has a relatively low number of infections, but experts say general apathy could lead to an explosion of cases over the next decade.
Organisers highlighted that situation, pointing out that while several health ministers from Asian countries attended, Japan’s own health minister did not take part.
“With a growing number of infections among young people and men who have sex with men, Japan should intensify sex education in schools and prevention efforts in general,” Rao said.
“AIDS is no longer a foreign problem. Today it is a Japanese problem as well.”
Revision date: June 11, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD