Africa is the continent that has suffered most from the HIV/AIDS epidemic over the past quarter century. But Southeast Asia is now becoming increasingly vulnerable, according to assessments made by the United Nation's Children's Fund, UNICEF.

Robert Bennoun, UNICEF's adviser on HIV and AIDS for the East Asia and Pacific region, says that in Asia, with more than 60 percent of the world's population, there are "enormous epidemics" emerging.

In the past, attention has been focused on the effects of HIV and AIDS in eastern and southern Africa. Now, there is recognition, he says, of the threat to Eastern Europe and Asia.

Mr. Bennoun points out that the Asian region has a huge and highly mobile population. He says the people who are on the move are often undocumented and lack access to health and education services.

Mr. Bennoun says large numbers of young people are being attracted to Asian cities where they often get involved in sex work.

"One of the big differences between eastern and southern Africa and Asia is that we have a very, very well developed sex industry, a very well-developed sex industry," he said. "We also have a regional crisis in the use of drugs and substances by young people. And all the improvements in behavioral surveillance are providing us with information on sustained increase in sexual misbehavior among young people."

Mr. Bennoun says that, currently, 3.5 million people in East Asia and the Pacific are estimated to be living with HIV and AIDS. For India, he says, the number is 3.9 million.

He says the projection for infections by the year 2010 for Southeast Asia and the Pacific is 12 million.

Mr. Bennoun says UNICEF projects infection rates for all of Asia and the Pacific by 2010 ranging between 22 million to 45 million living with HIV and AIDS.

Mr. Bennoun says that unlike the situation in Africa, there are still perhaps three years to take action to combat the disease. "Because our epidemics are emerging, we still have time to stop the rate of increase of those epidemics if we act very quickly, effectively, and most importantly, at (a large) scale," he said.

Mr. Bennoun says the combination of risk factors in the Asian region is worse than in most countries, with drug and alcohol use, mobility of the population, the sex industry and widespread poverty.

He says UNICEF is now spending $10-million a year on HIV/AIDS prevention and care in the region. And Mr. Bennoun adds they will be spending a minimum of $50-million over the next four years.