Thailand's HIV and AIDS victims received good news at the International AIDS Conference held in the Thai capital earlier this month: the government pledged to make anti-retroviral drugs available to all those who have the disease. However, the Asia-Pacific region as a whole experienced the world's fastest rate of HIV infections last year, and several countries in the region are said to be especially vulnerable to the disease.
Thailand, with its large sex industry, was one of the first Asian countries to be hit hard by AIDS. About one million Thais are infected with HIV - the virus that causes AIDS, and there are some 20,000 new infections each year.
The figures would be higher, however, if the country had not instituted a massive program of education and condom distribution more than a decade ago. Now, the government has decided to focus on treatment as well as prevention.
At the International AIDS Conference held here earlier this month, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra declared his government would see that everyone infected with HIV receives anti-retroviral medication. The drugs slow the disease's progression and allow carriers to lead normal lives.
Yasmin Halima, a British AIDS activist, sees the Thai government's stance as a positive outcome of the AIDS conference. "Bangkok is another watershed and it's placed [AIDS] higher on the political agenda than ever before," she says. "For the first time we were talking about really getting treatment to people."
Father Joe Maier, a Catholic priest who for three decades has worked in the Bangkok slum community of Klong Toey, also hailed the prime minister's speech. But he wants to see action as well as words. "It was the perfect speech by the prime minister, and I just hope it happens. Let us hope it works," he says. "I have my doubts."
Father Maier has had a first-hand view as AIDS has spread through Thai society. His hospice in Klong Toey has assisted hundreds afflicted with the disease. "AIDS is here forever," he says. "AIDS is in the middle of the community. It's with the moms and dads and the children. It's right in the middle of society, right in our homes."
Scientists at the AIDS conference said that if governments acted now, the rest of the Asia-Pacific region also could be spared the catastrophic infection rates that sub-Saharan Africa has suffered. However, they said, even with prevention programs, the AIDS problem will grow.
Dr. David Cooper of St. Vincent's Hospital in Sydney, Australia, was co-chairman of the scientific panels at the conference. "My take on the outcome of the debate is that it won't be an African style-epidemic, but nevertheless there will be explosive outbreaks affecting hundreds of thousands or millions of people related to specific risk transmission," says Dr. Cooper.
The Asia-Pacific region as a whole experienced the world's fastest rate of new infections in 2003. Experts estimate there are more than seven million people with HIV in the Asia-Pacific region, with China, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam especially vulnerable to new infections. China has been warned it may face up to 10 million HIV carriers by 2010.
If any country faces an Africa-like epidemic, Dr. Cooper says, it is Papua New Guinea, or P.N.G., where the infection rate is surging. The country has about 16,000 HIV victims, up from about 10,000 in 2001. "The spread in P.N.G.(Papua New Guinea) is very alarming," he says. "Of all the countries in the region, P.N.G. has the greatest chance of having a sub-Saharan African-type epidemic."
While Thailand has had considerable success in slowing the spread of AIDS, other countries in the Asia-Pacific region are still struggling to contain the disease.
In some countries, such as Papua New Guinea, extreme poverty and low education levels make it difficult to carry out AIDS-prevention programs. In other countries, such as India, a slow government response and a highly mobile society have allowed the virus to spread dramatically.