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UN Warns Asia on Risk of AIDS Epidemic - 2003-09-02

A United Nations envoy has warned Asian leaders to avoid being lulled into complacency by the region's relatively low AIDS infection rates. Asian governments are being urged to act now or face an epidemic like that devastating many countries in Africa.

Asia-Pacific leaders have been urged to tackle the spread AIDS head-on. The warning came Tuesday from the United Nations special envoy for AIDS, Dr. Nafis Sadik. On a visit to Bangkok, she said some Asian leaders have buried themselves in the illusion that AIDS and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, will remain restricted to high-risk groups such as sex workers and intravenous drug users.

"Asian leaders should not be so complacent," she said. "They think it's low incidence and therefore not a problem, and they need to address the issue now, today."

In Asia and the Pacific there are an estimated seven million people infected with HIV - with Cambodia, Burma and Thailand reporting that about one percent of those aged between 15 and 49 are infected. In China, one million people are infected with HIV, but there are official warnings the number might rise to 10 million by 2010.

The worst infection rates in the world are in Africa, where more than 30 million people are infected with HIV. South Africa faces the highest caseload with 4.7 million cases. In some countries, more than 20 percent of the population is infected.

Dr. Sadik fears Asia's leaders do not believe the epidemic in their countries can reach the levels now being faced in Africa. "I'm afraid that many Asia leaders think that what has happened in Africa could never happen here," she said. "Though I do see in some leaders that they start to recognize the African problem started also in the same way. I mean 15-20 years ago, for example, Namibia had no cases. But today it's a very high incidence country, something like 25 percent."

In Botswana, with a population of just 1.7 million people, nearly 40 percent of those aged 15 to 49 are AIDS victims.

Also in Bangkok, Botswana President Festus Mogae says Asian countries should avoid the mistake Africa made by acting to late to stem the spread.

Asian countries, said President Mogae, "should avoid the mistake we did in Africa, whereby partly out of helplessness, we ignored the pandemic and let it spread for too long and too far before we started doing anything about it."

Mr. Mogae says Asia-Pacific countries should use their larger human and financial resources to fight AIDS with education programs now, while infections rates are still low.