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Needle Drug Users Fuel Spread of AIDS in Asia, says UN

U.N. officials say needles and syringe sharing among drug users are fueling the spread of AIDS throughout the Asia Pacific region. But prevention programs that require legal reforms remain a challenge for many Asian governments, which have tough stances on narcotics use.

The United Nations, in its report to mark World AIDS Day, says several countries face a rapid growth in AIDS infections because of drug abuse. Among the countries is Indonesia, which has a relatively low infection rate now.

The U-N report released in Bangkok says Indonesia's social upheaval is behind the sharp rise in urban dwellers infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

From zero infections in the mid-1990s, Jakarta now has almost 50,000 HIV positive people. Many are drug users who shared needles and syringes with other addicts. Next year, drug users are expected to account for 80 percent of all new HIV cases in the country. There are 7.2 million people living with HIV in the Asia Pacific region, out of a worldwide HIV/AIDS population of more than 40 million. More than one million people are infected in China and almost four million in India have the virus.

U.N. officials say legal reforms are needed to control the spread of AIDS among drug users.

"The sharing of injecting drug-user equipment, which is dirty, has driven a large part of the epidemic in many of our countries," said Dr. Sandro Calvani, regional head of the U.N. drug control program. "It has driven the epidemic in China; it is driving the epidemic in Indonesia the same applies to Myanmar [Burma], Vietnam."

Dr. Calvani says to limit the epidemic, regional governments and aid organizations must reduce the risk to drug users.

But Tony Lisle, a member of the UNAIDS Southeast Asia and Pacific team, says it will be difficult for many countries to make the necessary legal reforms.

Narcotics production and use has long been a problem in Southeast Asia a major producer of opium. Governments in the region have responded with tough laws banning drug abuse, especially injected drugs.

Other nations, such as Australia, have changed their laws to allow addicts to easily obtain clean needles and syringes, to reduce the risk of infection.

Mr. Lisle says such programs have saved lives and millions of dollars in health expenditure. "It is clear that Australia has averted billions of dollars in health costs in the past several years because of harm-reduction programs," he said.

But Mr. Lisle says while some countries, such as China and Thailand, are aware of the need for change, others stand by their tough stance against drug users, which he says blocks HIV prevention efforts.