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Asia faces uphill
fight in battle against AIDS

Asia faces uphill
fight in battle against AIDS

The 7th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, to be held in Kobe, Japan, July 1-5, will focus on prevention and access to cheap medicine to ensure that HIV does not proliferate in Asia as it has in Africa. Health experts warn that Asia could face an explosion of HIV over the next decade unless governments step up their fight against the disease. "If nothing is done, some 10 million people in China could be infected by 2010," says Takashi Sawada, a Japanese doctor who works with nongovernmental organizations on HIV prevention in Thailand and Cambodia.

The United Nations estimates that 8.2 million people are HIV-positive in Asia, some 5.1 million in India alone, where the disease has moved from high-risk groups into families, infecting mothers and children. Cultural and political differences complicate the fight in Asia, with stigmatization, the status of women, and politicians' reluctance to get involved being some of the obstacles to prevention and education.

"Even if you have the motivation and desire, there are a lot of unseen influences that limit your movement," says Hu Jia, a Chinese AIDS activist who has been harassed by police.

Awareness campaigns and condom distribution in Thailand and India have helped stem the rise in cases. However, according to Denis Broun, Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS coordinator for India, "There is no possibility for being complacent."

In Thailand, new infections fell from nearly 143,000 in 1991 to 21,260 at the end of 2003, but infection rates among injection drug users remain as high as 33%, say activists, and young Thais are shunning condom use, believing the risk of infection is low.

"The situation is not getting worse, but it's not getting better either," says Praphan Phanuphak, director of the Thai Red Cross AIDS Research Center. (Reuters)

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