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November 19, 2013

UN: Asia Pacific AIDS Epidemic at Pivotal Stage

by Ron Corben

A new UN report warns the HIV epidemic in Asia and the Pacific is at a pivotal juncture with little progress in reducing new infections. AIDS researchers and activists are calling for more political will by governments to address related issues.

The report, launched by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, says 4.9 million people are living with virus that leads to AIDS across the Asia and Pacific region, largely centered on India, China and Indonesia.

The report, released to coincide with the 11th International Congress on Aids in Asia and Pacific says the rate of new infections has been reduced by more than 25 percent since 2001.

India, Burma, Nepal, Papua New Guinea and Thailand have all reported reductions of new HIV infections by more than 50 percent during the past decade. But evidence is emerging of new HIV infections increasing sharply in Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines.  

Annual new HIV infection rates in the Asia-Pacific region have remained steady at 350,000 a year since 2008.

UNAIDS in the Asia and Pacific Director Steve Kraus says recent gains to reduce infections have stagnated, undermining UN goals of achieving zero new infections and deaths from the virus.  

"We have to innovate," Kraus said. "We have not seen a decline in new infections in our region in the last five years. We need to challenge the status quo because laws, policies and practices too often are barriers. Access to treatment is not available and prevention programs have not been scaled up."

The number of people in the region accessing medication to keep the virus in check, or antiretroviral treatment, has risen to 1.25 million, just more 50 percent of those infected.

AIDS related deaths have also declined by 18 percent since 2005, to an estimated 270,000 in 2012.

The report says the fastest growing epidemics are among men who have sex with men with 27 million men at risk to the virus. While in Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines, rising rates of new infections are linked to injecting drug use populations.

Malu Marin, regional director of the non-government organization Seven Sisters, says issues of discrimination and AIDS-related deaths point to little progress made by policy makers.

"We have made gains in changing risky behaviors that increase vulnerabilities to HIV infection, but we have not made gains in changing the behaviors of policy makers, political leaders and state actors," Marin said. "Evidence should be our foundation, but 30 years later HIV is still viewed from the lens of dogmatic morality.  We are getting to zero change because of zero access to funding, zero legal reforms and zero political will."

Fijian President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau says more needs to be done toward reducing stigma and discrimination.  

"Programs addressing HIV related stigma and discrimination in the work place, schools and trade based organizations were also reported as contributing to progress towards this target in several countries, though such programs are rarely implemented at a large enough scale," Nailatikau said.

UN officials see the need for law reforms in areas such as same sex relationships, criminalization of sex workers and restrictions on movement of people based on their HIV status.