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Some Asian countries on brink of potentially explosive AIDS epidemics, report warns

Some Asian countries on brink of potentially explosive AIDS epidemics, report warns

There is clear potential for extensive spread of HIV in Asia if preventive action "is too little or too late," according to a new report released on the eve of an international AIDS conference organized in part by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Early and large-scale preventive action have kept prevalence low in parts of Asia but these low HIV infection rates do not necessarily mean rates will remain low forever, says the report, Status and Trends of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Asia and the Pacific, released today in Melbourne, Australia, where the 6th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific will begin tomorrow.

The report argues that "some find reassurance in the fact that only three Asian countries have registered nationwide prevalence rates so far of over 1 per cent," compared with much higher national rates in some African countries. Unfortunately, the report says, national averages are not particularly meaningful in the Asian context where epidemics have yet to mature. The report also says that national infection rates of around 3 per cent "in no way represent a 'natural limit' imposed by behaviour patterns in the region."

"Some countries in the region began prevention efforts early and they are reaping the benefits today," Peter Piot, Executive Director of UNAIDS, said at a news conference to launch the report, published by Monitoring the AIDS Pandemic, an international network of HIV experts. "Elsewhere, however, epidemics will continue their natural course unless prevention programmes quickly reach the population groups most vulnerable to HIV."

According to the report, Asia's epidemics are driven by five overlapping and closely intertwined waves of infection: men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, sex workers and their clients, wives and girlfriends, and newborn and breastfed infants.

Despite the grim prospect of a widening epidemic, the report holds out hope. The fact that most of the epidemic in Asia at this stage remains concentrated is a "blessing in disguise" with "enormous potential for containment." The report acknowledges the serious hurdles to prevention - such as the criminal nature of certain risky behaviours and lack of public support for their prevention. However, intensive prevention efforts in populations where HIV has already taken hold are both affordable and effective.

To mount an effective response, programmes targeting the general population must take place alongside programmes for high-risk groups through information, policies that reduce vulnerability, and sexual health education, the report urges.

Meanwhile in New York, Secretary-General Kofi Annan met with the chief executive officers and senior executives of seven of the world's leading research-based pharmaceutical companies to discuss AIDS drugs as a follow-up to an earlier meeting in April.

Today's session was intended to focus on access to drugs, particularly in the Least Developed Countries, reduced drug prices, improvement of health systems infrastructure and the participation of the private sector in helping to raise resources for the global fight against HIV/AIDS, a spokesman for Mr. Annan said.