A new report warns that if prevention efforts in Asia are not expanded, nearly 10 million people in that region will be infected by the year 2020 with the virus that causes AIDS. From United Nations headquarters in New York, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.

The findings of an independent commission studying the AIDS epidemic in Asia were presented to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday.

Since the early 1990s, HIV infections have been reported in every country of Asia. In the years since, an estimated nine million people have been infected and almost four million have died from AIDS-related illnesses.

Commission chair, Dr. Chakravarthi Rangarajan, says this problem must be taken seriously.

"According to the latest estimate there are 4.9 million people living with HIV/AIDS, and 300,000 people died of HIV-related diseases in 2007. That gives you some idea of the magnitude of the problem. In fact, if left unchecked, five million people more will be infected," said Dr. Rangarajan.

Dr. Rangarajan led the group of nine economists, scientists, policy-makers and civil society representatives who conducted the study over an 18-month period. They found the epidemic in Asia is primarily driven by sex workers and their clients, people who inject intravenous drugs, and unprotected sex between men.

The commission estimates that up to 10 million women in Asia sell sex and at least 75 million men buy it regularly. In many Asian countries, adult men who buy sex and their female partners constitute the largest group of people living with HIV.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban, who is Korean, said Asia is seeing the beginnings of a vicious circle that poses a threat to society and economic growth that requires immediate action.

"Asia has proved before that it can act decisively and effectively in the face of grave threats," he said. "We saw a clear example of this in the swift and resolute response to SARS five years ago. Asian countries have the capacity to tackle AIDS with the same resolve and creativity. But it will require a collective effort on all fronts."

The report says too few governments in Asia have given AIDS the priority it deserves and that political leaders have important roles to play in mounting an effective response to the disease. They must also involve community-based organizations in the response.

The panel urged Asian countries to expand their outreach efforts to those most at risk, so prevention programs make an impact, as well as ensuring universal treatment to those who are infected.

The commission also recommends strengthening and sharpening the roles of U.N. agencies in preventing HIV and AIDS, as well as developing an Asian-specific strategy for tackling the disease.

If Asian leaders step up their response to the AIDS epidemic now, the report says the number of people newly infected by 2020 can be kept to three million - less than half the number of new infections expected otherwise.