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Saturday, July 2, 2005

AIDS time bomb is Asia: Kobe forum


Staff writer

KOBE — Medical professionals, scholars, community leaders and those who are HIV positive from around Asia and the Pacific gathered Friday in Kobe to begin a five-day conference on the region's growing HIV/AIDS crisis.

"Asia and the Pacific are now home to a rapidly expanding HIV and AIDS epidemic. Last year, there were a total of 8.2 million people in the region who were HIV positive," said Peter Piot, UNAIDS executive director and undersecretary general of the United Nations, just before the opening ceremony Friday evening.

Piot had praise for recent efforts in some parts of Asia, including Cambodia, in reversing its epidemic and noted that China and Malaysia's political leaders have gotten serious about fighting AIDS.

However, he said major problems remain and the situation is getting worse.

"There has been a failure across Asia and the Pacific to meet key goals agreed to in the Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS adopted at the U.N. General Assembly Special Session in 2001," he said.

"In South and Southeast Asia, end-2003 figures show that HIV prevention programs reached just one of five sex workers, one of 20 injecting drug users, and only one in 50 men who have sex with men," he said.

With next week's Group of Eight summit in Scotland focusing on AIDS in Africa, organizers of the 7th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific emphasized that Asia has also been stricken by HIV and AIDS and is in need of just as much international assistance, and political attention, in combating the disease.

"The AIDS issue is not restricted to Africa. It is becoming an issue of greater seriousness in Asia," said Tadamitsu Kishimoto, chairman of the 7th ICAAP and a special adviser to the Council for Science and Technology at the Cabinet Office.

A U.N. report on HIV and AIDS in the Asia-Pacific region released earlier this week notes that 21 percent of all people living with HIV in 2004 were in Asia. The region had 24 percent of the world's new HIV infections.

"The G8 nations need to pay attention to what's happening in Asia because in a few more years, the AIDS crisis here will likely surpass that of Africa. Especially hard hit will be the poor, who cannot afford access to treatment," said Dr. Anbu Rajan, director of the Indian-based nongovernmental organization Peace Trust.

In India, for example, it costs around $200 per month for HIV/AIDS treatment, which is too expensive for 85 percent of those who are stricken, he pointed out.

While many of the seminars and symposiums are dedicated to medical advances in AIDS treatment, a good number of others will discuss local-level countermeasures, cross-border strategies, and community-based care and treatment of patients.

Numerous NGOs and nonprofit organizations from around Asia and the Pacific are also in attendance, offering advice and workshops, as well as their own experiences and case studies in providing both treatment and preventative education.

High on the list of priorities to be discussed is figuring out ways to reduce the cost of antiretroviral drugs, or ARVs, to treat patients.

ARVs inhibit the reproduction of retroviruses, which are viruses composed of RNA instead of DNA. They block steps in the replication of HIV, slowing its progression and offering patients some relief.

Although costs of producing the drugs have decreased in recent years, they still remain out of reach for most of the world's poor. Despite an announced goal of providing treatment to 3 million people by the end of 2005, UNAIDS said Friday this goal will probably not be reached, and a large reason is the costs of the drugs.

In his remarks at the opening ceremony Friday evening, Shigeru Omi, director of the World Health Organization's office for the Western Pacific, painted a grim picture if those waiting for ARVs and other treatment forms do not get them.

"More than half a million people in the Asia-Pacific region are dying from AIDS, and there are 1.2 million new HIV infections in our region each year. More than 155,000 patients are receiving ARV therapy, but that's just 15 percent of those who need it, " Omi said.

Prior to Friday evening's opening ceremony, participants discussed basic practical problems that hinder effective treatment.

Besides high ARV costs, many countries lack of qualified physicians, and rural patients face high travel costs getting to major cities to receive care.

People in some countries, including China and South Pacific nations, continue to rely on traditional herbs and medicines, often sold at inflated prices, wrongly believing they are an effective treatment, because they have not been taught otherwise.

Kishimoto stressed that Japan has a growing AIDS problem as well, noting that there are currently around 12,000 Japanese who are HIV positive, of which 24 percent are women. He also said Japanese have a low recognition of the problem.

Dennis Altman, president of the AIDS Society of Asia and the Pacific, had a direct explanation as to why this was the case.

"To date, there has not been sufficient honesty in Japan in talking about AIDS," he said, adding he hoped the Kobe meeting breaks the taboo of public discussion of Japan's own growing AIDS problem.



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