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Indonesia Facing Major HIV/AIDS Epidemic

World AIDS Day attempts to focus attention on the effects of AIDS globally. In Indonesia, like many other Asian countries, AIDS is a growing problem.

They look like any other Indonesian teenagers, but these young men are residents in a heroin rehab center just outside of the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Some of them are HIV positive, from the infected needles that they share.

Undi, a former heroin addict, says, 'If we have the drugs, we have the needle, then we use it. Sometimes, there's still other people's blood on it, but we use it anyway."

Injecting drugs such as heroin is a growing problem among youth in Indonesia. Most of these drug users have very little awareness of the virus, which is why needle sharing is a common practice. Now, the ones who are infected have to learn to live with the virus that strips away the body's immune system.

Husein, another recovering addict, says the virus has taught him to take better care of himself. He learns to monitor his health and heed the warning signs.

The young people attending this rehab center get counseling on HIV/AIDS. But this is far from enough for a country like Indonesia, where awareness is low. Some local experts say that up to 250,000 Indonesians are living with HIV.

The latest data also shows that up to 50 percent of intravenous drug users in Indonesia are HIV positive. Most are college and high school students, and since they have little knowledge of what HIV is, it is easy for the disease to spread.

Tary, an Indonesian woman infected by her husband says, "If HIV has real symptoms, then there won't be many people like me. I would not have known that I had HIV if my husband and baby did not die from it."

There are more and more women like Tary, who got the virus from husbands who injected heroin using contaminated needles. That is why HIV activists say that increasing awareness among drug users is key to stopping the AIDS epidemic.

At this center in central Jakarta, they give out free needles to heroin addicts. This is a difficult campaign to undertake in a relatively conservative country like Indonesia, but activists say that this needs to be done, since the rise of HIV infection among drug users affects infection rate in the rest of the population.

AIDS activists in Indonesia are also targeting sex workers. Joyce Djaelani Gordon is an activist.

"Among sex workers in Indonesia, their prevalence rates were also increasing," said Ms. Gordon. "What was only below 1 percent in the beginning, beginning of '99, began to increase by 3 to 5 percent, and continued to increase, so there is a direct link among the IV use with the other population."

This clinic in West Jakarta is surrounded by massage parlors. They provide sexually transmitted disease counseling and testing for sex workers, but they say it is not easy to get sex workers to come to the clinic, even at the discounted price of around $2 per visit.

AIDS activists in Indonesia also believe the government is not serious about handling this rising epidemic. They also worry that the Indonesian people's denial of the rampant sex and drugs existing in society will make matters worse.

The only cure for AIDS is education, said Husein. "And I really hope that people would stop stigmatizing HIV positive people like me. Look at me, I'm positive, but I'm doing something with my life, so stop that negative outlook on people with AIDS. If you don't know about HIV, it's time to ask. If you want, you can even ask me," he said.