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AIDS Becomes Rising Threat in Asia - 2003-11-25

A new United Nations report says five million more people around the world became infected with HIV during the past year and three million died from it. U.N. officials say that while Africa remains the continent most affected by AIDS, the threat of a serious outbreak is rising in several large Asian countries. They warn that if governments do not address the problem, Asia could overtake Africa in the sheer number of people afflicted with the disease.

The United Nations' annual report on the AIDS epidemic, released Tuesday, says seven million Asians are infected with HIV and one-half million more died from AIDS, the illness it causes, last year.

Jai Narain, the World Health Organization's AIDS advisor in Asia, said at a news conference in Bangkok on Tuesday, that although AIDS afflicts less than one percent of adults in most of Asia, the region is second only to Africa in the total number of infected people.

"With a large population, Asia has, I think, the potential for the epidemic to increase," he said. "It's much greater. The opportunities available to make a difference are also enormous compared to Africa so we have to seize the opportunity."

Professor Narain says Asian countries have more resources to develop the education and prevention campaigns needed to battle AIDS. He says they also have time to develop programs and can benefit from the experience of the past two decades.

The U.N. report notes that AIDS infection rates have stabilized in Cambodia, Thailand and Burma because of political support for prevention programs. However, the report warns the epidemic threatens to rage out of control in China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam because of rising infection rates among intravenous drug users and men who frequent sex workers. India, with more than four million HIV sufferers, is second only to South Africa in the number of HIV victims.

Officials note that 95 percent of all HIV victims live in low or medium-income countries, that are the least able to afford treatment with new drugs. They say they will announce next Monday, on World AIDS Day, an initiative to place three million people on drug treatment programs by the end of 2005.

Professor Narain says this represents only one-half of the people who could benefit from the treatment, but it is a beginning.

"It means we have to scale up 10 times [the number of people treated] in the next two years," he said. "So the challenge is quite daunting but I think we have to make every effort to achieve the target."

The initiative is being called the three-by-five target. Experts hope that the drug treatments, by prolonging the lives of AIDS sufferers, will help breadwinners support their families longer and reduce the ballooning population of AIDS orphans.