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Sunday, July 3, 2005

Asia urged to confront AIDS before it's too late

Staff writer

KOBE -- Confronting the AIDS crisis in Asia must be a matter of political will. But for too many governments, it remains a matter of political won't, U.N. officials warned Saturday at the 7th International Conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific.

"If national responses remain as they are, we are in deep trouble," said J.V.R. Prasada Rao, director of the regional support team under the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS.

"If nothing changes, 12 million new infections could occur in the Asia-Pacific region between now and 2010," he said.

The political problem, as Rao and other delegates at the five-day conference which began Friday noted, is that for many governments, a glance at official statistics on AIDS in Asia leads to the mistaken conclusion that the problem is not as severe as in other regions, such as Africa.

"If we look only at the prevalence rates, three countries in Asia -- Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand -- have HIV/AIDS epidemics with more than 1 percent of the adult population. We may be tempted to say it's a relief that 99 percent of the population is uninfected. But more than 8 million people in Asia are HIV positive, and half a million died of AIDS in 2004," Rao said.

Forging the political will at not only the local level, where many AIDS volunteers are working, but also the regional and international level was on the minds of many at Saturday's events.

Some expressed a desire for regular meetings between health ministers from the ASEAN countries and China, South Korea and Japan. Others want the Group of Eight to put Asia's AIDS crisis on its agenda for next year.

It is often local and international NGOs that take the lead against battling ingrained social prejudice toward gays and stigmatization of those in Asia with HIV/AIDS by educating both people with the HIV virus and their communities.

"One way we attempt to reduce stigmatization and educate the public is through the media," said Dy Many Many, a Cambodian HIV/AIDS activist. "We get those with HIV/AIDS involved with the production of TV and radio spots on AIDS issues. There is also a radio call-in show on HIV/AIDS issues."

She noted that popular Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan has lent his talents to the campaign to fight HIV/AIDS in Cambodia and other Asian countries. Despite being cited by Rao as having an infection rate of more than 1 percent of the population, which is considered by medical experts to be an epidemic, Cambodia is regarded as an Asian success story in the battle to reduce HIV/AIDS infections.

About 1.9 percent of the population had HIV/AIDS in 2003, which is down from well over 3 percent a decade ago.

Despite individual success stories, medical experts worry the risk of an AIDS pandemic will soon increase without broader cooperation.

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The Japan Times

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