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AIDS boss warns of PNG epidemic
Sunday, July 3, 2005 Posted: 0717 GMT (1517 HKT)
(Photo) Asia has the second-largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world after sub-Saharan Africa.
KOBE, Japan (AP) -- Papua New Guinea is at risk of an African-level HIV/AIDS epidemic, but other Asia-Pacific nations like Malaysia, Vietnam and Myanmar are also worrisome as the number of infections there continue to rise, the head of the U.N. AIDS agency has said.
The epidemic is as vast and diverse as the region itself with sex and injecting drug use the main engines driving the epidemic.
But there's simply not enough data to create a clear picture of the situation in many areas where other factors -- such as men who have sex with men -- could be contributing to rising numbers in cities and local communities, Dr. Peter Piot, head of UNAIDS, told The Associated Press on the sidelines of a regional AIDS conference Sunday.
Asia has the second-largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world after sub-Saharan Africa. An additional 12 million people could be infected in the region over the next five years if nothing is done to slow the pace of the epidemic, UNAIDS has said.
The impoverished Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea is facing the biggest problem because the disease appears to have moved into the general population, and an estimated 1.7 percent of the country's adults were living with HIV last year, according to a UNAIDS report.
It's "the one that I would see that could have an African-type of epidemic," Piot said during the Seventh International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific held in Kobe, Japan. "That's the one country, I would say I think is really getting out of hand."
He said the epidemic there is heterosexually driven and largely connected to gender inequality and violence, along with unemployment and a lack of stability.
In places like Vietnam and Malaysia, injecting drug users are a major force behind rising numbers.
Piot said top leadership must get actively involved to make a difference and countries should move away from incarcerating drug users and sex workers, instead arming them with education and treatment, including offering clean needles and methadone to injecting drug users, he said.
Malaysia has recently announced it will move in that direction and China is also taking a more proactive approach, moves Piot says he hopes other Asian countries will follow.
In places like military-run Myanmar, the problems are more challenging because the country is heavily isolated from the rest of the world due to the political situation making surveillance and outreach difficult.
An epidemic, driven largely by injecting drug use, is raging there with about 1.2 percent of the adult population and an estimated 330,000 total people living with HIV/AIDS.
"We always have Myanmar -- Burma -- where I'm not totally sure what's going on," Piot said. "It certainly has a bad epidemic. There's no more doubt about it."
Countries also need to keep a close eye on other populations that may not have traditionally been problem groups.
He said more young people are having casual sex in places like Bangkok and Tokyo and that now, more than ever, women are having sex with more partners at younger ages. Migrating populations, including migrant workers, are another group that cannot be ignored.
And while the region has recently confronted other diseases like SARS and bird flu, leaders and citizens must understand that HIV/AIDS is on a whole other scale, Piot said.
"Let's assume there's an avian flu epidemic, that's going to be like a shock, a bomb," he said. "Maybe millions of people will die suddenly but when it's over, it's over and we will have another flu epidemic maybe 30 years later whereas with AIDS, it just builds up across generations."
An estimated 8.2 million people were living with the virus in the Asia-Pacific region last year. About 1.2 million were newly infected in 2004, second only to sub-Saharan Africa.