Countries across Asia observed World AIDS Day on Wednesday, December 1, with the world's two most populous countries - India and China - looking to address ignorance about the deadly virus. Governments are joining AIDS activists and global health experts in renewing calls for urgent action to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Throughout Asia, people observed the 17th annual World AIDS day with a mixture of grief, fear and resolve.
Health experts have a twin message here. For countries with epidemic levels of HIV: governments must do more to address the threat. In countries where infection rates remain low, the message is equally as stark: act now or face a massive epidemic in just a few years.
"There is a window of opportunity in many Asian countries," says Dr. Desmond Johns, who runs the U.N. AIDS office in New York City. "Bangladesh, East Timor, Pakistan and the Philippines - still have very, very low levels and a sustained push in these countries will avert serious epidemics in the future."
More serious action is needed in Asia's two countries with billion plus populations: China and India - which have been deemed most at risk from AIDS outside of African nations.
India has more than five million people with the HIV virus, the second largest number of cases after South Africa. India marked the day with a series of marches and local events, including urban prostitutes distributing red AIDS awareness ribbons and liquor stores handing out condoms.
Dr. Johns said India is just starting to play catch up and has a long way to go. He noted that commitment rather than ignorance is the key. "More money will certainly help," he said, "but we need more than just money. We need leadership and we need commitment."
In China, where the problem had long been denied, President Hu Jintao is making a public statement about his government's commitment to battle HIV/AIDS. He spoke Tuesday at his first public meeting with an AIDS patient at a local Beijing hospital for Chinese television. The president said the government cares about AIDS patients and will help.
Dr. Joel Rehnstrom runs the U.N. AIDS China program, and said Beijing's drive to address the AIDS epidemic is not meeting much enthusiasm outside of the capital. "We see genuine commitment from the central government, the ministry of health in Beijing," he said, "This commitment has yet to be translated into action at the provincial and local levels."
China says it has 840,000 HIV/AIDS cases but the actual figures are believed much higher. The United Nations estimates there could be 10 million cases by the end of the decade.
The theme for this year's World AIDS Day is women and girls and AIDS. A new U.N. report shows that HIV rates for women in East Asia are up more than 50 percent.
The World Health Organization says 47 percent of all AIDS cases worldwide are now women, a marked contrast to the earliest days of the epidemic when AIDS was almost exclusively associated with gay men.
In Pakistan, a World AIDS Day conference brought together aid workers from around the world to discuss the threat to women, who have less rights and protections in many countries.
Officials attending the conference say many women in Asia are often forced to have unprotected sex with their cheating spouses or pushed into prostitution. Yet discussions about how to prevent AIDS are taboo in conservative or Muslim societies, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh.
When the first World AIDS day was held in 1988 there were fewer than 10 million AIDS cases around the world. Today there are about four times that many. And every minute another 10 people get infected.