Asian-Pacific political leaders have a brief period to save millions of people from HIV infection, but among their biggest challenges are gender inequality, which weakens a woman's defences against an HIV-positive man, along with stigma, which discourages people from finding out their HIV status, United Nations experts said today.
"In South Asia women are more vulnerable both socially and economically. They have less opportunity to protect themselves," Dr. Nafis Sadik, UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, said during the satellite session she chaired at the 15th International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand.
According to a report from the Asia Pacific Leadership Forum on HIV/AIDS and Development, about 1 million people in the region were infected with HIV in 2003 alone, bringing the number living with the virus to more than 7 million.
Leaders need to break the silence encouraging stigma and discrimination and not only speak out but take effective action on sensitive issues, the report says.
"In a society where there are religious, social, cost and other constraints, it's even more vital to have political leadership," said Anand Panyarachun, former Prime Minister of Thailand and chairman of the Leadership Forum steering committee.
Though India's HIV prevalence is only between 0.4 per cent and 1.3 per cent, it has the largest number of people living with HIV outside South Africa - an estimated 5.1 million in 2003, the report said. Meanwhile serious epidemics have broken out in several territories and states.
Experts at the satellite session pointed out that low condom use in South Asia is a major hurdle in AIDS prevention, while indicators suggested a close link between the poor status of women in patriarchal societies and their vulnerability to HIV. Poverty, discrimination and violence against women and girls have been fuelling the epidemic.
"The needs of vulnerable groups, including women and young people, continue to be neglected throughout Asia," said Kathleen Cravero, Deputy Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). "Until women and girls have equal access to effective HIV prevention and treatment services, there is little hope to beat the epidemic."
Elsewhere in South Asia, warning signs of future HIV outbreaks from pervasive injecting drug use and sex work show that even low-prevalence countries could see epidemics surge suddenly, the experts said.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which is chairing the UNAIDS Committee of Co-Sponsoring Organizations, has pledged to spotlight the impact on the pandemic of injecting drug use, imprisonment, human trafficking and conflict.
"Drugs and crime are important, yet often neglected, factors in the evolution of the HIV/AIDS pandemic," said UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa, who is also attending the Bangkok conference.
Meanwhile, at UN Headquarters in New York, spokesman Stephane Dujarric told journalists that the Global Media AIDS Initiative, a collaborative group of the world's most powerful media launched last January by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, announced that it would begin new HIV-focused public education efforts in Russia, India, China, Indonesia and the United States.
He quoted UNAIDS Executive Director Dr. Peter Piot as saying, "The coming together of media organizations to harness their collective power to fight against AIDS is one of the most important partnerships forged to date."