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China, India Could Face AIDS Epidemic, Says Health Expert - 2003-07-03

The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that India and China, the world's two most populous nations, may be facing an AIDS epidemic of catastrophic proportions.

Dr. Julie Gerberding compares the AIDS epidemic in Asia to that of Africa 10 years ago. Dr. Gerberding warns that without significant international intervention, infection rates in the region could explode just as they did in Africa.

Dr. Gerberding is the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She made her comments Thursday at a conference in Singapore.

No one knows for sure exactly how many people in Asia are HIV positive. The United Nations estimates as many as 10 million people in China could be infected by the end of this decade.

In India, the numbers may go even higher. At least four million Indians are thought to have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. India has the largest number of HIV infections in the world.

In addition to China and India, Dr. Gerberding also singled out Cambodia as a country at particular risk. All three countries have large numbers of mobile workers, limited health care facilities and poor public health education systems.

Dr. Gerberding says it appears public health measures to control AIDS in several Asian countries have yet to take hold.

International efforts to curb the spread of AIDS primarily focus on public education about the disease.

But in Asia, AIDS activists say conservative social values make it difficult to talk openly about topics such as drug use, prostitution and safe sex.

"Most of the time our ministers and our stakeholders take the view that HIV is a moral issue," explained Dr. I.S. Giladi, director of People's Health Organization, one of India's oldest and largest AIDS organizations. "We cannot promote condoms directly, which is ridiculous."

Dr. Giladi says the real struggle in India, as in China, is convincing the government to confront AIDS head on.

In China, the central government did not publicly admit it had an AIDS epidemic until 2001. About three quarters of China's AIDS cases are blamed on drug users sharing needles and contaminated blood donations.

The United Nations estimates that more than 70 million people will have died from AIDS by the year 2020.