Experts gather in Bali to discuss AIDS fight
Experts from 65 nations gathered in Indonesia Sunday to assess progress in the battle against HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, amid concern that only a quarter of those in need in the region were getting treatment.
The ninth International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP), to be opened by Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on the resort island of Bali, will look at how to ensure "universal access" to antiretroviral treatment, congress chairman Zubairi Djoerban said.
He said that only 25 percent of the 1.7 million of people with HIV/AIDS in the Asia-Pacific region who needed the treatment were receiving it.
"We're still far away from our target," he said.
"We're not talking 100 percent, which is the ideal. If Latin America can treat 62 percent of sufferers there, we should strive towards that."
UNAIDS regional director Prasada Rao said that countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Laos have been able to treat 80 percent of HIV-positive people there but about 10 countries managed to cover only 10 to 15 percent, due to geographical limitations and lack of funding.
An estimated five million Asians are living with HIV, especially in southeastern countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines and Indonesia, according to a UN report released last year.
The congress, which runs until Thursday, will also demand commitment from governments to tackle a disease that killed 380,000 people across Asia in 2007, Djoerban said.
"We ask for commitment from the countries to achieve the targets they have set and if they say they can't, we'll discuss new efforts to help them reach their goals," he added.
"We can discuss prevention and treatment but with no leadership and commitment from countries and the community, we won't achieve much."
The congress also aims to put pressure on governments to change policies that "just keep on discriminating people because of their sexual behaviour such as males who have sex with males and commercial sex workers," Rao told reporters.
While there are some bright spots in the region, such as Cambodia, where HIV prevalence has declined through condom use, new infections are growing in populous countries such as Bangladesh and China, the UN report said.
In Indonesia and South Asia, Djoerban said, the biggest threat was the lethal combination of dirty needles and unprotected sex.
"We're concerned about India, Indonesia and Pakistan, where there is overlapping of drug injecting and unprotected sex... this includes sex workers taking drugs and drug users not using condoms," he said.
"New infections are offsetting positive results from preventive actions."
In Indonesia, where HIV/AIDS cases have tripled since 2005 to 26,632, according to official figures, prisoners and prostitutes have joined injecting drug users to become among the groups most at risk.
A third of 254 prison deaths in the country in May this year were due to HIV/AIDS.
Meanwhile, one of the worst HIV epidemics outside of Africa is under way in Indonesia's remote eastern province of Papua, where 2.4 out of every 100 people are infected due to an influx of migrants workers and a booming sex industry.
However, HIV prevalence in the region is still low compared with Africa.
"In South and Southeast Asia, the HIV prevalence is 0.3 percent. In sub-Saharan Africa, it's five percent," Djoerban said.
The Bali congress will also cover topics ranging from HIV risks among transgenders and migrant workers to biomolecular advances in HIV treatment and the impact of the financial crisis on those with HIV/AIDS.