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Tuesday July 5, 3:12 PM
Regional AIDS conference ends in Japan with talk of future challenges facing the region - AP
After five days of hearing figures and seeing charts about the increasing spread of AIDS in the Asia-Pacific, Maura Elaripe Mea said Tuesday it's time for those living with the disease to rise up and demand what's needed to keep them alive.
As an HIV-positive woman from the impoverished Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea, she represents the growing face of the disease in the region where about 40 percent of the 8.2 million people infected are female.
"The voice of positive people needs strengthening and it needs to ring out loud and clear at every level and within every government department and in every country," she said during the closing ceremony of the Seventh International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific in Kobe, Japan. "The days of tokenism must be laid to rest."
Mea called on everyone to battle extreme stigma and discrimination that people living with the virus face daily, so that more positive people from a number of countries can speak up and reach out for help.
"We cannot just sit back and let the issue of ... scaling up access to treatment slip through our hands while our brothers and sisters continue to die and infections continue to rise," she said.
Papua New Guinea is facing the biggest epidemic in the region with an estimated 1.7 percent of the country's adults living with HIV. It's the only country in the Asia-Pacific where the disease has moved into the general population and the only nation UNAIDS fears will reach sub-Saharan Africa proportions.
But the challenges are as large and diverse as the region itself.
Targeting and reaching out to vulnerable populations that many countries would rather ignore is key, said J.V.R. Prasada Rao, regional director of the UNAIDS support team for Asia and the Pacific.
In order to keep the epidemic from ballooning over the next five years with a projected 12 million new infections, sensitivities must be put aside and sex workers, injecting drug users and men who have sex with men must be given condoms, clean needles and methadone.
"Without a doubt, we will have to concentrate our efforts on these groups despite the taboos, the social constraints and the moral arguments," he said.
But Andrew Hunter of the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers said that's a difficult message to deliver when sex workers were not given a loud voice at the conference and some studies on the issue were not accepted for presentation.
"This conference, we had hoped, would be an opportunity for those of us who know what works and to respect the human rights of the most vulnerable groups to speak out but ... this has not happened," he said.
He said the next conference in Sri Lanka two years from now needs to include more involvement from affected groups.
The Asia-Pacific has the second-largest number of people living with the virus after sub-Saharan Africa. UNAIDS repeatedly called for governments to take a strong role in addressing the issue, including investing more in programs and prevention and conducting more surveillance to determine where problem areas lie. Migrant groups and young people also cannot be forgotten in the fight against the disease, UNAIDS said.
If response to the epidemic is dramatically increased over the next five years, the region has a chance to prevent 6 million new infections from occurring in a region where AIDS has already orphaned 1.5 million children, Rao said.
"In a region where 1,500 people die each day because of AIDS, the window of opportunity to reverse the epidemic is closing fast, "he said. "But that shrinking window can be held open by political will."