Leaders must educate Asians on AIDS -UN official
( 2003-10-13 21:59) (Agencies)
Leaders of the Asia-Pacific region must brush aside cultural taboos and step up efforts to educate their people about HIV/AIDS if a serious epidemic is to be averted, a United Nations official said on Monday.
"One of the illusions in Asia is to think that this is just a disease of the poor, the junkies, the prostitutes and their clients," UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot told Reuters.
"The choice is clear for me. It's either act now or pay later," he said of a region which the UN says could see an "African-style" crisis and could account for 40 percent of new global infections by 2010.
To succeed, governments must destigmatise safe sex and widen education on prevention measures, he said.
Piot said the October 20-21 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok to be attended by 21 regional leaders, including US President George W. Bush, presented an opportunity for leaders to press ahead with measures to control AIDS.
"There's no way you can win over a problem if you have to be underground about it," said the 54-year-old Belgian doctor, who co-discovered the Ebola virus in Zaire in the 1970s.
"We need strong leadership, acting now to make sure that our children are not affected later on."
Nearly one million people in the Asia-Pacific region were infected with HIV in 2002, taking the number living with the virus to 7.2 million, according to UNAIDS data.
Nearly half a million people are estimated to have died of AIDS in the past year and Asian nations with huge populations -- China and India -- are finding HIV is accelerating, Piot said.
Only one percent of India's adult population has HIV, but that translates into 3.97 million people living with HIV at the end of 2001 -- the second-highest figure in the world, after South Africa.
In China, the number of people officially living with HIV in mid-2002 was one million, but UNAIDS said unless effective responses took hold, 10 million Chinese will have been infected by the end of the decade -- equal to the population of Belgium.
"SARS should have taught China that an epidemic can have major political and economic fallout," Piot said.
Two bright spots in the battle against AIDS are Thailand and Cambodia, where HIV infection rates are on the decline.
"Thailand is one of the few hope-giving stories on AIDS," Piot said. Thailand had slightly more than 20,000 new cases last year, down 83 percent from the 140,000 new cases of 1991.
But that did not mean Thailand could afford to rest on its laurels. UNAIDS says transmission modes have changed: instead of commercial sex workers spreading the disease, wives and young Thais are now starting to show increased rates of HIV infection.
Piot said it was crucial for Thailand to remain vigilant.
"If the achievements of Thailand are either wiped out or are not maintained, there will be a major backlash in the global fight against AIDS," he said.
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