UN: 26 March 2008 – Unless Asia mounts a more effective response to stem the tide of HIV and AIDS, 8 million more people in the region could find themselves newly infected by 2020, according to a new report presented today to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“Redefining AIDS in Asia – Crafting an Effective Response,” produced by the independent Commission on AIDS in Asia, states that nearly 5 million people are living with HIV in Asia, with 440,000 people dying each year. However, without concerted efforts, the annual death toll will increase to almost 500,000 by 2020.
The report emphasizes that the number of people newly infected by 2020 can be kept to 3 million if Asian leaders implement priority interventions right away. An annual investment of only 30 cents per capita on focused prevention programmes can reverse the epidemic, it adds.
Noting that countries in Asia have the resources, technology and organizational capacity for a scaled-up response, the report notes that what are needed is the political will of governments and the involvement of community-based organizations in the response.
Speaking at the handover of the report, Mr. Ban said that Asia has proved before that it can act decisively and effectively in the face of grave threats, as seen 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,” he noted. “But it will require a collective effort on all fronts – from gender inequality to stigma, discrimination, and marginalization of populations such as migrants and ethnic minorities.”
The Secretary-General added that AIDS will challenge Asia for years to come. “But if we invest early enough and judiciously enough, we can achieve an effective response,” he stated.
Chakravarthi Rangarajan, the Commission’s Chairman and Chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India, agreed, stating that “the problem of HIV/AIDS in Asia is assuming proportions which demand and which require greater focus and attention.”
Presenting the report to journalists, he said the Commission looked at three aspects of the epidemic – the seriousness of the problem, the nature of the problem and the kinds of policies required.
“It is estimated that HIV/AIDS may emerge as the single largest cause of death for adults in the age group 15-42,” Dr. Rangarajan said, adding that the three major drivers of the disease are commercial sex workers and their clients, injection drug users, and men having sex with men. “Therefore, any attempt at controlling HIV/AIDS must focus attention on these groups.”
He stressed that crucial to addressing the problem is an enhanced level of political commitment. The Commission also recommends that watchdog bodies be set up to monitor national programmes, and that activities such as commercial sex and injection drug use be decriminalized. Additional resources are also critical to scaling up efforts to tackle the problem.
“What is really unique about this report is that it is the first time ever that there is such a comprehensive study on the AIDS epidemic in Asia,” Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), told reporters. Also, the epidemic is looked at through the “lens” of economists and sociologists in addition to members of the medical community and those living with HIV and community groups.
The report is important for four reasons, he said. First, it shows clearly that the response to the epidemic has to be tailored to Asian realities. Secondly, it calls for making the most of the funding currently available. Thirdly, the report tackles some “really tough issues” and calls for stronger leadership to address problems such as discrimination and to support HIV prevention among commercial sex workers, men who have sex with men and injection drug users.
In addition, the report emphasizes the need to increase the involvement of communities and people living with HIV “from token involvement to full partnership,” Dr. Piot stated. “It is simply an illusion to think that one can stop an epidemic without involving the people who are affected by the epidemic.”
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