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HIV/AIDS Outlook in Asia Mixed

A new report by the United Nations AIDS agency says India has overtaken South Africa as the country with the highest number of people infected with HIV/AIDS. The UNAIDS report also says the epidemic has spread in some Asia-Pacific nations, such as Burma and Vietnam, but slowed slightly in others.

Over eight million people in Asia were living with the AIDS virus at the end of 2005, almost six million of them in India alone, the UNAIDS report finds.

Joana Merlin-Scholtes, the U.N. Resident Coordinator for Thailand says while the epidemic shows signs of slowing in some regions, it still extracts a terrible toll in Asia.

"In Asia approximately 930,000 were newly infected with HIV/AIDS in 2005 while AIDS claimed an estimated 600,000 lives through the region," she says.

Merlin-Scholtes says the regional picture is mixed.

"HIV prevalence has declined in Cambodia and four states of India in 2005," she says. "It remains limited in Bangladesh, in the Philippines, in Indonesia and in Pakistan. [But] overall prevalence in China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Papua New Guinea is continuing to increase."

In Vietnam, AIDS has spread across the entire country, with 260,000 people infected. In Burma, facing one of the most serious epidemics in Asia, some 360,000 people are believed to be HIV positive. The report says the spread in both countries is fueled by poor preventive measures and lack of access to treatment.

The report also emphasizes the particular vulnerability of Asian women.

Indonesian AIDS activist, Frika Chia Iskandar, blames gender inequalities for rising infection rates.

"The low status of women remains too often the principle driver of HIV," she says. "In Asia, Asian culture that put women on the bottom of the agenda - this needs to change. We need to prioritize women; we need to empower women."

In Cambodia, women account for 47 percent of those living with AIDS - up 10 percent in less than a decade. In Thailand, more than 40 percent of all new HIV infections are women in long-term relationships, infected by their partner.

UNAIDS says the factors driving the spread of the virus across the region vary and urges countries to tailor their response.

It also warns against complacency. Thailand has long been seen as a success story, slowing infection rates from 140,000 a year to fewer than 20,000.

But Patrick Brenny, UNAIDS country coordinator in Thailand, says infection rates are rising among injecting drug users, men who have sex with men and migrants and more needs to be done.

"The glass is only half full," he says. "Public information has in many cases dropped off the radar screen - we have youth today whose 85 percent of them say HIV isn't an issue for me - we need to do more."

The Thai government plans to spend $900 million over the next five years to combat the pandemic and in China, where around 650,000 people are living with HIV, the government is now providing free anti-retroviral drugs.