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Senior UN AIDS Official Says Asia Close to Winning AIDS Treatment Battle


An unidentified HIV/AIDS patient looks on from the isolation ward at Wat Prabat Nampu, in Lopburi, Thailand, 05 Oct 2009

A top United Nations official says much of the Asia-Pacific region is nearing full treatment coverage for patients with HIV. But Prasada Rao warns access to remote regions in China and India, and disrupted AIDS programs in Pakistan and Afghanistan leave millions at risk.

The departing head of the U.N. AIDS program in the Asia-Pacific region, Prasada Rao, says the region is within three years of "winning the battle" against the AIDS pandemic.

Prasada Rao
Prasada Rao

Rao, who has led the U.N. AIDS program in the region for the past five years, says increased treatment coverage and intervention programs are turning the tide against AIDS.

In Thailand and Cambodia treatment coverage has reached almost 90 percent. In India 50 percent of patients get treatment, but in China the number stands at 30 percent and 35 percent in Burma.

"By 2012, up to 2013, I can see that we'll start winning the battle around that time. And by 2015 - this is the Millennium Development Goal of halting and reversing the epidemic - I can say that the majority of countries in this region would be in a position to say that 'yes' we can halt and reverse the epidemic," he said.

In South and Southeast Asia the rate of new HIV infections has fallen by more than 10 percent since 2001, thanks to an increase in prevention and treatment programs. But there are still 4.7 million people living with AIDS in the region and around 350,000 new infections each year.

Rao acknowledges that concerns remain, especially because of problems expanding AIDS programs in remote locations in China, India and Indonesia.

Indonesia's Papua province and neighboring Papua New Guinea have seen cases rise sharply in the past few years. The U.N. predicts that by 2012 about five percent of Papua New Guinea's population will be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS - more than 208,000 people.

"The most challenging to me is the Papua New Guinea scenario where I think it's not just the reachability [of treatment programs] that is important but the strength of the health system itself by which it delivers services - it is a big question," he said.

Other problems facing the U.N. AIDS program in Asia include the fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which blocks access to remote areas. But Rao says the U.N. is able to work elsewhere in Pakistan with the support of the central and provincial governments.