Asia facing AIDS 'explosion'

Posted: 15 February 2005

Asia is heading for an HIV/AIDS explosion unless governments take radical steps to rein in the disease, as well as the social and economic problems fuelling its spread, says the author of a new book on the subject. Isaac Baker of the IPS news service reports.

"This story of AIDS is not a pretty story. It's one we don't want to hear," said Susan Hunter, an independent consultant for the Joint U.N. Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). "But is has the power to tell us the truth about the world that we live in."

Hunter's new book, titled AIDS in Asia: A Continent in Peril warns that current figures for the region are probably vastly underestimated, and that the situation will only get worse unless problems like women's oppression are formally addressed.

"This is very much the point where humanity must step up and make this play out in a positive way," she said at the book's launch [in New York on February 10].

The UNAIDS annual report, released last November, estimates that 8.2 million people in Asia, excluding the Asian part of the Russian Federation, were living with HIV/AIDS at the end of 2004.

Last year, Asia saw some 1.2 million new infections and 540,000 deaths. And the situation could get much worse, experts warn.

Tipping point

"Perhaps Asia is yet to experience its tipping point," said Laurie Garrett, a prize-winning journalist and health expert, who also spoke. "Perhaps the explosive nudge has not yet occurred."

Hunter believes that even the current figures only reflect about 10-20 per cent of actual cases.

"The epidemic is much, much, much more serious than the official numbers ever convey," Hunter said. "I believe that from my experiences in many countries, that these numbers are vastly underestimated."

Should current trends continue, 30 million people could be infected in China and India alone by 2010. Other projections run much higher.

Four factors

Hunter's book lays out four factors which she says are responsible for the rapid spread of AIDS on the Asian continent - the enormous population, ineffective leadership, the booming sex and drug trades, and economic difficulties.

Unless these conditions are radically changed, Hunter said, a devastating HIV/AIDS eruption in Asia is practically guaranteed.

"Today we have the opportunity to prevent the unfolding of a catastrophic epidemic in Asia," UNAIDS executive director Peter Piot said in a statement. "Effectively tackling AIDS in the region will require addressing the challenges expressed in Hunter's book."

While Sub-Saharan Africa has been hit hardest by the virus, Hunter and other AIDS experts say Asia will soon follow suit.

Due to the continent's massive population of over 3 billion - 60 per cent of the world's people - the proportion of people living with the infection is relatively low. However, this does not by mean that the Asian HIV/AIDS epidemic is under control.

'Massive denial'

"The populations of many Asian nations are so large that even low national HIV prevalence means large numbers of people are living with HIV," the UNAIDS report says.

The immensity and diversity of the region's population also makes HIV/AIDS reduction strategies and data collection problematic, experts say.

"Asia is not just vast but diverse, and HIV epidemics in the region share that diversity, with the nature, pace and severity of epidemics differing across the region," according to UNAIDS.

However, Hunter also believes that individual governments are not doing enough to prevent the spread of AIDS. Many, she said, simply ignore the growing problem.

"Right now I don't see many governments that are controlling AIDS in Asia. What I see is Asian governments in massive denial."

Thailand's success

Hunter and Garrett point to Thailand, which has undertaken massive condom promotion campaigns, as an example of effective government action to help curb the disease.

"The single most successful HIV/AIDS reversal programme on Planet Earth to date has not been in any of the wealthy world, it has been in Thailand," Garrett said.

Sexual abuse and the organised sex trade in many Asian nations have also led to the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS. The oppression of women, extreme poverty, and the long-lasting devastation of last year's tsunami has left many women with no choice but to sell themselves, Hunter and Garrett said.

"When women are not educated and given other opportunities, the sex trade is wide open," Hunter said.

Condoms are not used, and "any sex worker can be paid not to use one," she added.

In addition to increased national efforts, Hunter told IPS, western nations must also live up to their aid commitments if epidemics in Asia are to be slowed. Copyright: IPS

AIDS in Asia: a Continent in Peril is published in hardback by Palgrave Macmillan (New York) at $29.95.

Related links UNAIDS AIDS epidemic outpacing response