Delegates from across Asia are meeting in Melbourne, Australia this week, for a five-day conference on AIDS in the region. The meeting comes amid rising concerns that if measures are not taken now, Asia could eventually become the region with the largest number of people afflicted with the AIDS virus.

The Melbourne conference on AIDS is bringing together leaders from all sectors of society, including governments, multi-national and non-governmental organizations, as well as private industry and labor groups.

Organizers say the conference is meant to precede the summit of South East Asian nations, which will devote high-profile sessions to AIDS and the virus that causes it, HIV.

The Director of the International Labor Organization's Global AIDS Program, Franklyn Lisk, notes the meeting comes amid rising concern over the spread of AIDS in Asia. "Until quite recently the main focus was in Africa. Now those who have information regarding the development and spread of the disease globally are of the opinion that the epicenter could shift from Africa to Asia," Lisk said.

More than six million people in Asia are living with the HIV virus. This is less than one percent of the total population and considerably less than the 25 million people in Africa who are HIV positive.

But AIDS experts note that Asia is home to two-thirds of the world's population. They fear that rising incidences of AIDS in this region, especially in China, India and Indonesia; three of the world's most populous nations, could cause Asia to surpass Africa in the number of AIDS victims within 10 years.

An official with the UN Program on Aids who is helping to organize the Melbourne Conference, Paul Toh, says there are several other important causes for concern. "The whole mobility factor within the Asia-Pacific region is huge and the vulnerabilities are very, very high," Toh continues. "The whole sex work area, as well (as) the whole IV injecting areas are very, very high."

AIDS experts say they've learned a lot since the battle against AIDS began two decades ago. U.N. Program Advisor for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Steve Kraus, says an important lesson they've learned is to involve all sectors of society in combating the virus. "Twenty years ago when the AIDS epidemic began, we understood AIDS to be a medical problem that would be addressed through public health and the medical communities," Kraus continues. "We've learned subsequently that of course that was nice thinking, but inaccurate and incorrect."

Mr. Kraus says experts now believe that many different partners are needed in addition to the medical community, including politicians and civil society, as well as leaders in private business and labor.

The head of the ILO's AIDS program, Mr. Lisk, says it is important to address AIDS in the workplace because 80 percent of the 30 million adults infected with HIV are workers. "The vast majority of those affected are people who are working and people who are therefore affected by the virus through income and through livelihoods for themselves and their families," Lisk said.

One of the participants at the conference, a medical advisor with the Roche pharmaceutical company in Bangladesh, Shah Abdur Rahman Choudhry, says business has come to realize that AIDS is affecting productivity through higher absenteeism and death rates among employees. It also is raising medical care costs and death benefits. He says business therefore has an interest in fighting the disease. "In both industry and government workplaces, we must increase awareness. That will save a lot of people in the future from this dreadful disease," Choudhry continues. "So, it very essential and the time has now come to make the people aware about these diseases."

Finally, AIDS experts say, new laws must be passed by political leaders to help Asian governments, in cooperation with civil society, to develop better ways to prevent AIDS, care for its victims, and cope with the losses it causes in the most productive segments of society.