UN raises alarm on Aids epidemic in Asia


Asian governments must devote more funds to preventing Aids or face the risk the disease could kill nearly 500,000 people each year across the continent by 2020, a United Nations report says.


While the international spotlight has often focused on Aids in Africa, the study commissioned by the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS sounded the alarm about the impact of the scourge in Asia.


About 440,000 currently die from the disease each year in Asia, the report said.


The study released on Wednesday also said the overall number of infected people would likely double to 10 million by 2020 if prevention efforts are not implemented.


"Despite a declining trend of new HIV (the virus that causes Aids) infections in a few countries, Aids still accounts for more deaths annually among 15 to 44 year-olds than do tuberculosis and other diseases," it noted.


"The costs of inaction are simply too high," said the chairman of the Commission on Aids in Asia, Dr Chakravarthi Rangarajan, as he presented the report to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.


"Without concerted and evidence-based responses, Asia can expect an economic (annual) loss of two billion dollars by 2020."


UNAIDS was working to draw attention to the effect of the disease on Asia, warning against complacency as the scourge spreads.


"I'm the new face of Aids, as a young Asian woman," said Frika Chia Iskandar, the Indonesian coordinator of the Asia Pacific Network of People living with HIV and AIDS.


"For Asia, let's not wait for the crisis to happen," she told reporters.


Ban appealed to Asian countries to implement the Rangarajan-led panel's recommendations, including increased funding for prevention efforts.


"Asian countries can avert massive increases in infections and death, prevent economic losses, and save millions of people from poverty," he noted. "Such leadership is critical in Asia today."


"We will never see equitable progress if some parts of the population are still denied basic health and human rights – people living with HIV, sex workers, men who have sex with men, and young people who inject drugs," the UN chief added.


"Today less than 20 per cent of the resources required to tackle Aids (in Asia) are available," said UNAIDS executive director Peter Piot.


Indeed Rangarajan's report noted that last year, an estimated $1.2 billion (Dh4.4 billion) was available for Aids programs in Asia, while the amount needed "for an effective response" was estimated at $6.4 billion (Dh23.5 billion).


The study said "a minimum of 0.30 per cent per capita must be spent annually on prevention for it to be effective."


It noted that an annual budget of one billion dollars for focused prevention programs among most-at-risk populations could reduce infections by 60 per cent in Asia.


Piot said the findings showed "the diversity of the Aids epidemics in Asia and the need for countries to understand what is driving their epidemics and how to reach populations most at risk of HIV infection."


The 238-page report noted that HIV transmission in Asia was driven primarily by three high-risk behaviors: unprotected commercial sex, injecting drug use and unprotected sex between men.


It cautioned that "reliable HIV data is a precondition for taking effective action against the epidemics."


It also said that prevention programs should focus on increasing the consistent use of condoms during paid sex and by men engaging in gay sex.


The programs should also focus on protecting wives of men who buy sex, and on providing sex education in schools and colleges, according to the study.


The report, the most comprehensive study on the Aids epidemic in Asia, was  based on online responses from hundreds of representatives of community groups involved in AIDS-related work throughout the region.


Across Asia, an estimated 4.9 million people were living with HIV, including 440,000 newly infected in the past year, while about 300,000 died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2007, according to UNAIDS's annual report issued in late 2007.


It showed Southeast Asia had the highest prevalence of HIV in the continent, with Indonesia having the fastest rate of growth of HIV-infected people.


More than 33 million people around the world are living with HIV or AIDS, according to UNAIDS. (AFP)