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Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Unlike Africa, crisis in Asia not yet on political radar

Staff writer

KOBE — Unlike the situation in Africa, Asia's AIDS crisis has yet to grab the attention of Irish pop singers, Hollywood celebrities or leaders of the richest nations.

But as the 7th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific in Kobe showed, Asia is just as vulnerable to the epic pandemic.

In politics, timing is often key, and many conferees were split on what ICAAP's timing meant for raising the profile of the crisis in Asia.

The forum took place in the shadow of the coming Group of Eight summit in Scotland, where Africa's problems, especially AIDS relief, will be high on the agenda.

Over the weekend, as ICAAP delegates came to Kobe and focused on the crisis in Asia, the world's media attention was focused on huge music festivals around the world — all designed to raise awareness of Africa's problems.

Some delegates felt the focus on Africa detracted from ICAAP's message. Others welcomed the timing of the parley so close to the G8 meeting, saying it made it easier to get the message out about Asia because the world is now paying attention to HIV/AIDS problems in general.

ICAAP's organizers stressed that Asia's AIDS crisis can, ultimately, be dealt with only through strong political will. One problem in building that will, as both Shigeru Omi, World Health Organization regional director for the Western Pacific, and J.V.R. Prasada Rao, director of the regional support team of the Joint U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) noted, is that many political leaders who glance at the numbers may not see a crisis.

Unlike, for example, African countries where national infection rates are often in double digits, the hardest-hit Asian economies have HIV/AIDS prevalence rates of between 1 percent and 2 percent.

"But the actual numbers of people with HIV/AIDS are shockingly high. More than 8 million people in the Asia-Pacific region are living with HIV. Every day, 1,500 people in the region die from AIDS, and 3,500 become infected," Omi said.

"In Asia, with its huge populations, prevalence rates are misleading. The HIV prevalence rate in China is about one-seventh of Brazil, but China has about 180,000 more HIV-infected people," Rao said.

Forecasts presented at ICAAP for the future spread of HIV/AIDS are grim. Unless Asian governments, and the world at large, quickly confront the problem, 12 million new infections could occur in the region in the next five years, officials warned.

Despite a 2003 goal set by the WHO and UNAIDS to provide preventive services and treatment to 3 million patients by the end of 2005, ICAAP began with an admission by U.N. and WHO officials that this goal has been abandoned.

At present, about 1 million patients worldwide, including about 155,000 in East, South, and Southeast Asia, are receiving U.N.-mandated treatment and prevention help. But, as Jim Yong Kim, director of the WHO's department of HIV/AIDS, noted, there are another 945,000 people in immediate need of treatment, and that number is sure to rise.

This is not to say that there hasn't been progress. Thailand, for example, now has treatment for about 60 percent of patients who need it.

The discrimination against and stigmatization of people with HIV/AIDS, including those in the sex trade, drug addicts and homosexual males, also received a good deal of attention.

Senior delegates from WHO and UNAIDS, while praising the work of community-level nongovernmental organizations in Asia, said the time has come for national and regional coordinated action on treatment and prevention.

In the end, though, most delegates admitted Asia's crisis may ultimately need some sort of political catalyst to get it on the world's agenda before it is too late.

Japan, as ICAAP host and a member of the G8, has made substantial pledges to fund worldwide HIV/AIDS research and treatment, and the recent announcement that it was contributing an additional $500 million to a global fund on AIDS was welcomed by the delegates. However, others were disappointed that neither Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi nor health minister Hidehisa Otsuji attended.

"British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the British government took the initiative on bringing AIDS in Africa to the table of the G8 leaders' summit. This conference was an excellent chance for Japan's leaders to show they could take similar leadership on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Asia," a Japanese delegate said.

"Instead, they didn't show up, and Koizumi didn't even send a welcome message. Such behavior reinforces the attitude that Japan is great at writing checks for the world's problems but can't provide real political leadership."

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