WHO Warns Urgent Action Needed to Prevent Spread of HIV/AIDS into General Public

News release

Kobe, Japan - Raising the alarm that HIV/AIDS is spreading into the general population in some parts of Asia, the World Health Organization today urged leaders to further increase their political commitment and to make available prevention programmes and treatment for those in need.

Addressing the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, Dr Shigeru Omi, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, said that in Cambodia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea and Thailand, HIV/AIDS has reached the level of a generalized epidemic—meaning that more than 1% of a country's population is already infected. "Some countries such as China, India and Viet Nam are without a generalized epidemic, but there already are alarmingly high pockets of infection in at-risk groups and in some specific areas that create serious concern," he said.

Although the epidemic in the region is growing more rapidly among those groups with high-risk behaviour, the infection is now moving into the general population. "Those men who visit sex workers or engage in other high-risk behaviour later have unprotected sex with their wives or partners," Dr Omi pointed out. "An infection passed on from husband to wife can later be transmitted to her unborn children."

The overall HIV prevalence rate in Asia and the Pacific is still low, but the size of the region's population puts the actual numbers at an alarming 8 million people living with HIV. Every day, 1500 people die from AIDS in the Asia-Pacific region and 3500 people are newly infected.

HIV/AIDS is also taking an increasing toll on women and the young. Roughly 40% of those living with HIV in Asia and the Pacific are women, nearly double the percentage of just a decade ago. In addition, young people make up a large portion of the highest-risk and most vulnerable groups. About 70% of the sex workers in Cambodia and the Lao People's Democratic Republic are under 25 years of age. Nearly 70% of injecting drug users in Nepal are under 25.

Dr Omi urged "national and local leaders to create an environment in which those who need prevention programmes and treatment don't shy away from them because of concerns about retribution from authorities."

Preventive programmes, such as condom use and clean needle exchange, are often neglected as sex and drug use issues are considered unpopular because of political and cultural reasons. "Given the increasing rate of injecting drug use, we must do much more to increase access to clean needles and provide drug dependence treatment as these can markedly cut HIV infection rates," Dr Omi said.

The WHO official also called for a "redoubling of efforts to reach the goals of the 3 by 5 initiative—whereby 3 million people will be treated with antiretrovirals by the end of this year.

Involving communities and working more closely with those living with HIV/AIDS is essential in the fight against HIV/AIDS. "As we work together on prevention and treatment, we also must carry on the fight over the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS," Dr Omi added.

For more information, please contact, Dr Bernard Fabre-Teste, WHO Regional Adviser in Sexually Transmitted Infections including HIV/AIDS, at 63 927 494 5531 or (63 2) 528 9714 or email: fabretesteb@wpro.who.int.

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