"Explosive" HIV Epidemic Threatens Asia, Study Says

John Pickrell
for National Geographic News
June 24, 2004

Time is running out to tackle an impending "explosive" AIDS epidemic in the Asia Pacific region according to a new report from the World Health Organization and other bodies.

"Inequality, poverty, unequal status of women, stigma against people living with HIV, and cultural myths about sex contribute to an explosive epidemic," write the authors of a new report. The report outlines proposed steps in the global battle to fight the disease and will be published tomorrow in the research journal Science.

According to the report more than a million people were newly infected with HIV in the Asia Pacific region in 2002 alone. Ten million people could be living with HIV in China within six years unless infection rates are slowed, according to the authors.

Eastern Europe and Central Asia are also at the center of rapidly growing epidemics, which now affect 1.5 million people.

The article was penned by Peter Piot, executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS); Richard Feachem, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; and Lee Jong-wook, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Their report highlights areas of discussion for the International AIDS Conference to be convened on July 11 in Bangkok, Thailand.

The authors write that strong national leadership and commitment to fighting the disease are among the most important factors required to slow the spread of the Asian HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Sickening Figures

Today some 40 million people are infected with HIV worldwide. UNAIDS figures released in December suggest that up to 28 million of those infected with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa, while 7.4 million are HIV-positive in the Asia Pacific region.

The prevalence of HIV infection in some African countries is over 30 percent. Some experts predict that these countries could face economic collapse if their epidemics are not reigned in. Vic Salas, a senior program officer with the U.K.-based nonprofit International AIDS Alliance, says Africa's AIDS epidemic has outpaced that of the developing nations in Asia for many reasons.

These factors may include poverty, massive population movements due to conflicts and civil unrest, and a very poor health infrastructure (which allowed the disease to spread rapidly and undetected), according to Salas.

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