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Asian officials,
health workers meet for regional AIDS conference in Sri

Asian officials,
health workers meet for regional AIDS conference in Sri

Thousands of government officials and health care workers from across Asia are meeting in Sri Lanka for an international conference aimed at ensuring the AIDS epidemic does not worsen in the region.

Opening the conference Sunday night, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse urged Asia's government leaders to forge a common approach to facing the advancing danger of AIDS.

''As a mark of such solidarity, we must join hands within our respective countries and across boarders throughout the Asia-Pacific region, to achieve our objectives in limiting -- and hopefully eliminating -- the spread of AIDS,'' Rajapakse said.

He also called for changes to established patent policies, to make life-saving drugs available to all those in need.

The conference, called ''Waves of Change, Waves of Hope,'' has brought together 2,500 policy makers and health professionals from around Asia to share their experiences in fighting the spread of the disease, and in treating and supporting those already infected.

''The Asia and Pacific region has a low prevalence of HIV/AIDS, but the challenge across the countries is to keep the prevalence low,'' Deborah Landey, deputy director of UNAIDS, said at a news conference before the conference.

An estimated 8.6 million people in the region are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. That number, though considerable, remains far below the rate in sub-Saharan Africa, where 25.8 million people are infected.

Landey said each country must keep on its toes for new social trends in the spread of the virus, citing the example of rising infections among homosexuals in China.

Strong political leadership that does not become complacent over relatively low levels of infection is vital for keeping the disease at bay, she said.

Populations traditionally thought to be low-risk, including married women, are becoming more vulnerable to becoming infected by their husbands, Landey said. In Papua New Guinea, more than half of the newly infected people were married women, she said.

Sri Lankan Health Secretary Athula Kahandaliyanage said though the country has a low HIV infection rate -- mainly because of an awareness of the virus due to a high literacy rate and access to health facilities -- issues of social marginalizing of those infected remain a problem.

The congress will hold discussions on a range of subjects, including preventing infections among vulnerable groups, treatment of those already infected and eliminating social stigma for victims and their families, according to the organizers. (Bharatha Mallawarachi, AP)

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