Crisis warning in Asia on World AIDS Day


Asia is in danger of developing an AIDS crisis of epidemic proportions if more is not done to curb the spread of the disease.

The incidence of AIDS is rising more rapidly in central Asian countries than in any other part of the world, according to statistics from the World Health Organisation.

A three-fold increase in infection rates in Iran has been reported, and intravenous drug use and sexually-transmitted diseases have contributed to a significant increase in infections in Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

India, with an estimated four million HIV-infected people, is second only to South Africa in terms of absolute numbers. And in China, the world's most populous country, the central government has acknowledged one million cases of AIDS and HIV, up from 600,000 last year.

The UN has suggested, however, that the number of Chinese infected with HIV could soar from an estimated 1.5 million to more than 10 million by the end of the decade.

China has about three years to contain infection by HIV, which official estimates suggest is increasing by 30 per cent per year.

"At the moment we know the epidemic is still growing very quickly and it will continue," said Mr Rodney Hatfield, the Thailand-based deputy regional director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

In Beijing, university students gathered at the Great Hall of the People for a government-backed event to increase awareness of the disease and were addressed by two AIDS sufferers. It was the first time AIDS patients had made a public address inside the important meeting hall.

Beijing-based UNICEF senior project officer Mr Ray Yip said the central government also needed campaigns to eliminate the stigma attached to the illness, for which there is no known cure.

The theme was picked up in India where the first woman in Assam province to publicly declare her HIV status, Ms Jahnabi Goswami told a rally attended by thousands of people that "society at large is very cruel to people living with AIDS." "We need help and mental support more than anything else."

Ms Goswami, is one of more than 100,000 HIV-positive patients who live in India's seven northeastern states, where the disease has spread rapidly due to the region's acute drug problem.

The states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura border the heroin-producing "Golden Triangle" of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand and has high rates of intravenous drug use - a key cause of HIV infection here.

The states account for less than three per cent of India's one billion-plus population but are home to more than 30 per cent of the country's total intravenous drug users, according to estimates.

"AIDS has become a real threat to the northeast and unless checked, our future generations will fail to see the light of the day," Assam Health Minister Mr Bhumidhar Barman said.

The United Nations warned of the potentially catastrophic spread of AIDS into once-isolated Afghanistan. Returning refugees who may be carrying sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), increased intravenous drug use in the country's south and prostitution could make Afghanistan a hotbed of HIV/AIDS infection.

"In Afghanistan we do not know the exact situation of the epidemic but we know HIV is present," said Mr Nigel Fisher, the UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan, in a Kabul address to mark World AIDS Day.

"Today signals a fresh start for Afghanistan. The openness and willingness to act early to ensure the epidemic does not reach catastrophic proportions is obvious."

Ending discrimination against HIV carriers and high risk groups such as sex workers and intravenous drug users was the best way to control the disease, which the WHO estimates has infected 100 people in Afghanistan so far this year.

"Discrimination drives the epidemic underground," said Fisher. "It is important this does not happen in Afghanistan."

Hoping to end discrimination against Vietnamese AIDS patients, more than 2,000 people took to the streets of Hanoi.

International health experts have long criticised Hanoi for focusing on HIV/AIDS as an affliction affecting "social evils," rather than raising awareness among the wider population.

In a state-sanctioned event led by Vice President Truong My Hoa, marchers circled Hanoi's Hoam Kiem lake carrying banners saying "Be friends with HIV carriers" and "Don't shun AIDS victims."

Government figures show 56,495 people were HIV positive by the end October but experts say the true number of those infected is at least 200,000, under-reported due to limited testing facilities and a reluctance to admit the full extent of Vietnam's epidemic.

Former US President Bill Clinton marked World AIDS Day by urging greater efforts to treat victims of the disease, saying prevention and education were not enough.

In an article in the New York Times, Mr Clinton, who heads an international anti-AIDS group along with South African statesman Mr Nelson Mandela, said 95 per cent of people with the disease were receiving no treatment.

"Given that medicine can turn AIDS from a death sentence into a chronic illness and reduce mother-to-child transmission, our withholding of treatment will appear to future historians as medieval, like bloodletting," he wrote.

Mr Clinton said there were close to 6 million people in the developing world with AIDS who should be getting treatment but were not.

"Too many countries are still in denial about the scope of the problem and what has to be done about it," he said. "The necessary drugs are expensive and unavailable to people in the poorest, hardest-hit countries."