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The World Health Organization urged political leaders in the Western Pacific region to step up efforts to stop the spread of the AIDS virus, saying the number of infections continues to grow. In 2006 an estimated 8.6 million people in Asia were living with HIV, nearly 1 million of whom were infected in the past year, WHO said on Thursday, calling for greater government action to fight the spread of the virus.
"Countries need to step up efforts to reduce the spread of HIV," said Shigeru Omi, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, covering 37 countries from China in the west to Fiji and Vanuatu in the east.
About half of the new infections in 2006 occurred through unprotected sex, Omi said, pointing to Vietnam and Papua New Guinea as potential hot spots.
The number of people living with HIV in Vietnam has doubled since 2000, reaching about 260,000 last year. The HIV prevalence rate among adults in Papua New Guinea has also increased dramatically since 2003.
"High-risk behavior, such as injection-drug use, unprotected paid sex, and unprotected sex between men, is especially evident in the HIV epidemics in some regions, including Asia," Omi said.
He said an estimated 44% of the people living with HIV in Asia were believed to have been infected while injecting drugs. As many as 11% of these drug users also engaged in high-risk sexual activities.
WHO, which has its Western Pacific headquarters in Manila, Philippines, said risky behavior among injection-drug users increased the chance of spreading HIV among and beyond at-risk population groups. In Thailand, one third of new infections were now married women, a group generally considered to be at low risk.
WHO said it was putting more emphasis on government accountability for this year's World AIDS Day on December 1, asking political leaders to raise greater awareness of HIV/AIDS and support programs to stop the spread of the disease.
Omi said WHO was pushing for fresh strategies to prevent HIV transmission, including efforts to discourage sharing of drug paraphernalia, reduce stigmatization, and promote voluntary counseling and testing. Omi said WHO was also calling for better marketing of condom use in the region. (Reuters)