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Progress Shown in Fight Against AIDS in Asia - 2001-08-14

The World Health Organization, WHO, says several countries in Asia have made significant progress in the fight against the AIDS virus, but the continent is still vulnerable to new infections.

The World Health Organization officials, attending a five-day AIDS conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, say they have been encouraged by a steady decline in HIV cases in Thailand and Cambodia during the past decade. HIV is the virus that attacks the immune system and leads to AIDS.

They say Thailand and Cambodia suffer some of the worst HIV infection rates in the world, but the WHO estimates only 20,000 people have been infected this year in Thailand, compared to 143,000 in 1991. Among sex workers in Cambodia, the new infection rate fell to 23 percent last year from more than 40 percent just three years ago.

WHO's regional director Gilles Poumerol attributes the decline to AIDS prevention projects that have vigorously promoted condom use.

"There are certainly a large number of interventions, which have influenced the trend, for example the education of the general population," he said. "But what appears to be the most effective intervention has been the condom promotion in the sex industry.

Mr. Poumerol says wider condom use is thought to be the best way to avoid AIDS epidemics. Although the percentage of HIV infected people is relatively small in Asia compared to Africa, most experts believe the AIDS crisis has yet to peak in the region. The WHO says educating the public in Asia about the disease is more urgent than ever before as the continent's population becomes more mobile and the region's sex industry continues to expand.

The WHO says Asia's sex industry is extremely profitable, accounting for an estimated two to 14 percent of the gross domestic product in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Even in industrialized Japan, profits from sex based businesses contribute up to three percent of the country's annual GDP.

The WHO believes by 2005, up to 800,000 people in the Asia-Pacific region could die of AIDS every year. How many more will contract the disease in the meantime will depend on how heavily populated countries like China and India respond to the crisis.