Asia must deal bravely with HIV/AIDS - UN official

Asia must deal bravely with HIV/AIDS - UN official

Hong Kong, 6 September A top UN official urged countries in Asia today to deal squarely and bravely with HIV/AIDS, which he said was being driven dangerously underground because of stigma and conservative attitudes.

“In Papua New Guinea, India, Malaysia where it is driven by injecting drug users, Indonesia, there are pockets of spread but because of stigma, it’s all underground," Peter Piot, head of the UN AIDS agency UNAIDS, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“Religion does not protect against AIDS. It’s about sex and drugs. They have the means and knowledge, so it’s a matter of political will and translating it into more openness about AIDS and having the courage to adopt education and prevention programmes to reach those who are marginalised."

Piot, who was in China’s northeastern city of Dalian for the World Economic Forum, said rapid economic development in Asia was fuelling the spread of HIV/AIDS.

According to UNAIDS’ 2006 report on the incurable disease, 8.3 million people were living with HIV in Asia at the end of 2005.

Some 930,000 people were newly infected with HIV in 2005, a year when AIDS claimed around 600,000 lives. Only 1 in 6 people who need treatment in Asia are receiving it.

“Rapid economic development, societies in very rapid transition, a huge population mobility, a lot of new money, mobile men with money, that increases the risk of HIV in a big way," Piot said.

While governments were beginning to talk seriously about the disease, action was needed and governments needed to face the very groups that they normally shy away from, he added.

“The epidemic is growing tremendously all over Asia in groups that are marginalised in society, among men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, clients of sex workers," he said.

“These are not groups that governments like to deal with but there ought to be far more openness. There is an incredibly high level of stigma around AIDS and that is something governments and leaders in business and politics can do something about."

Piot said the UN was very worried about how the trafficking of girls and women in the Indian subcontinent, where they were then forced into prostitution, was fuelling the spread of HIV.

A recent study published by the Harvard School of Public Health found that 40% of Nepalese women and girls rescued after being forced into prostitution in India were HIV positive.

“In Nepal, when you look at HIV it is concentrated in those areas where the trafficking is going on, that illustrates that you can’t deal with AIDS in just one country. This is a cross border, political issue," he said.

“We have brought together people working on this from India and Nepal to look into this." REUTERS