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Report Says HIV Infection is Growing Fastest in Asia - 2004-07-06

According to a report issued by the United Nations Tuesday, a quarter of all new HIV infections worldwide last year were in Asia. The world body's AIDS organization says if the spread of the disease is not checked, the region will face the same severe problems that sub-Saharan Africa has already experienced. Tom Rivers reports from London, one of the cities where the U.N. report was launched.

The UNAIDS program reports that in the last year alone, 1.1 million people in Asia became infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The executive director of the organization, Peter Piot, says the signs are that if adequate prevention programs are not mounted soon, the epidemic will expand in Asia at an alarming rate.

"Across Asia with the exception of Thailand and of Cambodia, leadership of AIDS is absolutely weak or it is emerging, like in China, it is starting," he said. "But in general it is weak or totally absent. And without such strong leadership, there is no way that we can contain this epidemic."

Like elsewhere, AIDS has a stigma attached to it in China, but Mr. Piot says from the prime minister on down, the government has started to send the message that openness on the issue is imperative and that things like concealing infection rate figures will not be tolerated.

"At the central level, I think that there is strong commitment and there is growing leadership. At the provincial level - China is a big country as we all know - provincial level, at the local level, there is still a lot of inaction, non-recognition and also a lot of discrimination," he said.

On a positive note, the UNAIDS chief says Asia can look to Thailand as a model where an effective education program has brought down the infection numbers. He says that in 1991, around 140,000 people became infected with HIV in Thailand. Last year's new infection rate stood at just 21,000.

UNAIDS says Thailand achieved the decrease through a massive campaign promoting of the use of condoms, and by encouraging men to reduce the number of their sexual partners and to avoid prostitutes.