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Asia Pacific Law Enforcement Called On in Fight Against HIV/AIDS

A special United Nations conference has called for police and law enforcement from Asia and the Pacific region to assist in the fight against the spread of AIDS. But speakers acknowledge a wide array of challenges in both raising awareness in the police ranks as well as the wider community.

The United Nations joint program on HIV and AIDS has turned to the region's police forces in the Asia-Pacific region in its fights against the spread of the disease.

At a three-day conference of 15 Asia-Pacific countries, the focus was to boost cooperation between law enforcement and networks of people living with HIV, as well as marginalized and vulnerable communities.

Across South and Southeast Asia there are almost five million adults and children infected with the virus that leads to AIDS, with the highest number in India.

In India's West Bengal state, Police Inspector General Soumen Mitra says altering general perceptions surrounding HIV/AIDS within police ranks remains a key challenge.

"As part of the community police endeavor in some areas we have initiated programs by which are incorporated non-government organizations working in these fields. So that we ourselves as police officers and police personnel bring about some change in our own attitude and we know how to serve this sort of people at risk," said Mitra.

Mitra says state police are working with non-government organizations in programs "aimed at changing attitudes" held by police forces about HIV/AIDS.

In the Pacific Islands, police commissioners and chiefs from the 21 regional states are undertaking programs to raise awareness among law-enforcement officers, especially as an increasing number are being called for active duty as international peacekeepers in distant countries.

HIV/AIDS human rights project manager with the New Zealand police, Janine Monahan, says breaking down social barriers is essential.

"We are going into an area where the 'public-private divide' is starting to shift," said Monahan. "You can imagine talking about sex and condom use. What we are now saying is that it cannot be private anymore because it is actually going to affect our police forces. If they get sick, if they infect their family, it actually is going to affect the community."

In Malaysia, Datuk Mohd Zaman Khan, a former Malaysian commissioner of police and now vice president of the Malaysian AIDS Council, says police involvement in social support is key as the incidence of HIV/AIDS is rising in the community.

"In Malaysia, the problem of HIV is comparatively new to the police department. In the sense that harm reduction was not put into sort of full gear until about four or five years ago. It was treated very confidentially. But now the HIV is becoming an epidemic it has come to the open and therefore the police department is beginning to be involved," said Zaman Khan.

About 5,700 Malaysians are reported infected with HIV.

But in the largely Muslim country barriers to fighting the disease remain. Issues of homosexuality and stringent laws against heroin trafficking keep many people at risk of infection from seeking help.

In response, Malaysia has implemented such programs as needle and syringe exchanges under a series of pilot projects.