The United Nations is calling for governments in Asia, many with tough anti-drug laws, to review their legislation to allow for alternative drug treatments and policies in an effort to reduce the spread of the AIDS virus across the region.
The United Nations is pressing governments to review their tough drug laws with the call made at a regional U.N. HIV-AIDS conference in Thailand with calls for drugs users to be treated as patients, rather than criminals.
Asia has some of the toughest anti-narcotics drugs laws globally, with many countries attaching long life sentences or even the death penalty to those found guilty of possession and trafficking of drugs such as heroin.
Across Asia there are about five million people living with the AIDS virus, with the highest rates of infection in South East Asia.
A director for the UNAIDS in Asia and the Pacific, Prasada Rao, says law reform is necessary to reduce the spread of the AIDS pandemic, especially through injecting drug users.
"There is a pressure coming in now to look at the drug laws which are maybe 30, 40, 50-years old and still following a traditional approach and not distinguishing between a drug trafficker and a drug user - putting them in the same bracket," he said. "The time has come to take a fresh look and see the drug user is not treated as an offender but as a patient as somebody who should be given treatment."
Cambodia, Burma, and Thailand have seen some reductions in the spread of the AIDS pandemic, but Indonesia, Pakistan and Vietnam all reported rapid growth in recent years.
In China UNAIDS says slightly fewer than 50 percent of the people living with HIV are believed to have been infected through contaminated needles. In Malaysia and Vietnam the virus is spread by injecting drug equipment as well as unprotected sex.
The United Nations is advocating methods of "harm reduction", such as injecting needle exchange and drug substitution programs through the use methadone, to reduce the spread of the virus. Such programs reduce the transmission of the virus that otherwise would occur by way of infected needles.
Such programs have been successful in Australia and have been adopted in Taiwan, Bangladesh and Vietnam. In Taiwan, new infection rates dropped by 70 percent during the past two years.
But Rao says acceptance of harm reduction methods has been slower by law enforcement and at political levels.
"It is high time that harm reduction has been brought to the forefront as an important tool, as an important strategy in the prevention of HIV," added Rao. "But what is not happening at the country level is the connection between the law enforcement authorities and the ministry of interior with the health ministry."
Rao says political will is required for law reform and strategies that could cut the numbers of new AIDS infections by half during the next five years.