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Kuala Lumpur (AFP) June 30, 2013
AIDS experts on Sunday called for a more open debate on the global pandemic in Asia, where they say discrimination still fuels the spread of HIV.
Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, president of the International AIDS Society (IAS), said many people infected with the HIV virus still did not receive early treatment due to discrimination, despite its benefits and the overall optimism over scientific advancements.
"Many Asian countries experienced concentrated epidemics, and there is an immense need to address key affected populations, which are still left behind in many countries," she said opening IAS's conference in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.
"We all know that stigma and discrimination are still amongst the key barriers," she added.
Adeeba Kamarulzaman, AIDS researcher at Malaysia's Universiti Malaya, said those affected by the disease and needing help included gay men, sex workers and transgendered people.
"Malaysia and indeed huge parts of Asia has a long way to go to match the scientific gains of the past few years with on-the-ground programmes," she said.
Michel Kazatchkine, the UN's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said the region should also decriminalise drug use, making it easier for users to get clean needles and other help to prevent infections with HIV.
"I don't see in Asia at this time a big momentum towards an open debate (on this)... but what I see are political opportunities," he told a discussion on drug policy and public health on the sidelines of the conference.
"It is time for open and honest debate. It is time to destigmatise," he said.
According to UNAIDS, 34 million people globally were living with HIV in 2011. That year, 2.5 million people became newly infected, around 10 percent of which was probably caused by drug use.
Many Asian countries have tough anti-drug laws, including death sentences for convicted drug traffickers. Drug users and other marginalised groups, such as gay and transgendered people, also face social stigma.
This year marks the first time the biennial scientific international conference has been held in Asia. In total, the global pandemic has claimed 30 million lives.
AIDS scientists at Malaysia meet express hopes for cure
Thousands of delegates will attend the four-day International AIDS Society (IAS) Conference which starts on Sunday in the Malaysian capital, the first time the bi-annual meeting will be held in Asia.
Sharon Lewin from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, said funding for cure research had gone from millions to tens of millions of dollars per year.
"I think we are a long way off, but what has changed in the last three years is a realisation, that there needs to be a commitment (to this)," she told AFP in a telephone interview.
"In 2010, at that time, very few people really believed it was possible... Between that time and now, there has been a major shift. There's evidence that things have really been moving."
Deborah Persaud of the US Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore, Maryland, said the case of the "Mississippi baby" that her team worked on presented a "ray of hope".
The baby, born in the US state of Mississippi, was apparently cleared of the virus after being given aggressive anti-retroviral treatment within 30 hours of her birth. She is now almost three years old.
"There needs to be a lot of work done... We have to replicate the case; we need to understand the case," she told reporters ahead of the conference.
"The key thing for us that we should focus on is to do what we know how to do -- and that is identify kids who are infected and treat them early."
Children below the age of 15 make up 10 percent, or 3.3 million, of the estimated 34 million people infected with HIV worldwide. In total, the global pandemic has claimed 30 million lives.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is expected to release new medical guidelines at the conference Sunday, which could make more people infected with HIV eligible to receive drugs.
Last month, scientists meeting in Paris to mark the 30th anniversary of the discovery of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, said they have high hopes for a treatment that will be given at an early stage of infection.
But they said people with a long-running, untreated infection and a compromised immune system may never benefit from an envisioned "functional cure" -- through which a person would retain traces of the virus but no symptoms.
About 1.8 million people die every year from AIDS, a disease in which the immune system is destroyed, with sufferers exposed to pneumonia, TB and other illnesses.
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