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Drug Use in Asia Leads to Spread of AIDS - 2002-02-07

Researchers in Australia say increasing drug use in Asia is leading to the rapid spread of AIDS. The practice of sharing dirty needles is now responsible for most of the new HIV infection cases in the region. The report released Thursday by the Australian-based Center for Harm Reduction warns that Asia could soon undergo "the worst regional AIDS epidemic on earth" unless governments in the region do more to combat drug use and drug trafficking.

The study covering 22 Asian countries found that populations of injection-drug users are increasing along trafficking routes that crisscross the heroin-producing region of Burma, Laos, and Thailand, known as the "golden triangle". Researchers say many of those infected drug users are highly mobile - creating new drug markets in areas that previously did not have high HIV infection rates in its population. For example, Gary Reid, the center's senior research officer, says the increasing use of heroin in Indonesia places the world's fourth most populous country at risk of an AIDS epidemic. He notes that before 2000, less than one percent of Indonesians who were HIV positive was injection-drug users. Now, drug users make up 19 percent of the total. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. "It's following an economic crisis and political instability that have taken place in the past few years," he said. "Accessibility of drugs has become a lot easier in Indonesia and people have started injecting their drugs rather than ingesting or inhaling their drugs. Because many of the people who are utilizing the drugs are completely unaware of blood-borne diseases such as HIV, there is widespread sharing of injecting equipment."

Mr. Reid says the lack of comprehensive AIDS education programs in many Asian countries is the biggest problem. The problem is compounded, he says, by the lack of government programs to prevent the spread of HIV-AIDS among drug users, such as needle exchanges.

The report praises several Asian governments, such as Thailand, for fighting the sexual transmission of HIV. But it also criticizes regional governments for jailing drug users instead of placing them in rehabilitation centers.

The report argues that incarceration does not help drug users stop their habit, and increases the risk for HIV transmission among the jailed population.