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UN spotlights scope of AIDS epidemic in Asia

by Staff Writers
United Nations (AFP) March 26, 2008
Nearly 500,000 people will die of AIDS each year in Asia by 2020 unless prevention efforts are fully implemented, a UN report said Wednesday.

The figure is up from 440,000 that currently die each year, according to the report commissioned by the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

The study also said the overall number of infected people would likely double to 10 million by 2020.

"Despite a declining trend of new HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) infections in a few countries, AIDS still accounts for more deaths annually among 15 to 44 year-olds than do tuberculosis and other diseases," it noted.

"The costs of inaction are simply too high," said the chairman of the Commission on AIDS in Asia, Dr Chakravarthi Rangarajan, as he presented the report to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

"Without concerted and evidence-based responses, Asia can expect an economic loss of two billion dollars by 2020."

Ban appealed to Asian countries to implement the panel's recommendations, including increased funding for prevention efforts.

"Asian countries can avert massive increases in infections and death, prevent economic losses, and save millions of people from poverty," he noted. "Such leadership is critical in Asia today."

"We will never see equitable progress if some parts of the population are still denied basic health and human rights -- people living with HIV, sex workers, men who have sex with men, and young people who inject drugs," the UN chief added.

"Today less than 20 percent of the resources required to tackle AIDS (in Asia) are available," said UNAIDS executive director Peter Piot.

Indeed Rangarajan's report noted that last year, an estimated 1.2 billion dollars was available for AIDS programs in Asia, while the amount needed "for an effective response" was estimated at 6.4 billion dollars.

The study said "a minimum of 0.30 percent per capita must be spent annually on prevention for it to be effective."

It noted that an annual budget of one billion dollars for focused prevention programs among most-at-risk populations could reduce infections by 60 percent in Asia.

Piot said the findings showed "the diversity of the AIDS epidemics in Asia and the need for countries to understand what is driving their epidemics and how to reach populations most at risk of HIV infection."

The 238-page report noted that HIV transmission in Asia was driven primarily by three high-risk behaviors: unprotected commercial sex, injecting drug use and unprotected sex between men.

It cautioned that "reliable HIV data is a precondition for taking effective action against the epidemics."

It also said that prevention programs should focus on increasing the consistent use of condoms during paid sex and by men engaging in gay sex.

The programs should also focus on protecting wives of men who buy sex, and on providing sex education in schools and colleges, according to the study.

The report, the most comprehensive study on the AIDS epidemic in Asia, was based on online responses from hundreds of representatives of community groups involved in AIDS-related work throughout the region.

Across Asia, an estimated 4.9 million people were living with HIV, including 440,000 newly infected in the past year, while about 300,000 died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2007, according to UNAIDS's annual report issued in late 2007.

It showed Southeast Asia had the highest prevalence of HIV in the continent, with Indonesia having the fastest rate of growth of HIV-infected people.

More than 33 million people around the world are living with HIV or AIDS, according to UNAIDS.

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