Lack of HIV/AIDS services for men having sex with men imperils Asia, WHO says

News release

Hong Kong (China), 17 February 2009—The World Health Organization (WHO) warned today that the HIV/AIDS epidemic may take a major turn for the worse in Asia unless countries urgently expand access to services to men who have sex with men (MSM).

Evidence shows that unprotected male-to-male sex is again fuelling the spread of HIV. The importance of this re-emerging mode of transmission has prompted WHO's Regional Office for the Western Pacific, in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme, UNAIDS and the Hong Kong (China) Department of Health, to call for swift action to address this growing health crisis.

The organizers will meet with HIV/AIDS specialists from Asian governments, regional experts and representatives from nongovenrment organizations from 18 to 20 February, when they will consider strategies to deliver better services to MSM communities.

"Studies show that at present, the proportion of HIV infections being transmitted among men who have sex with men is larger and more significant than we had originally believed," said Dr Massimo Ghidinelli, WHO Regional Adviser in HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections. "Action needs to be taken now if a major increase in HIV/AIDS cases is to be averted. We need to target HIV prevention strategies, together with better access to health services, for men who have sex with men."

Strengthening surveillance and implementing effective interventions for HIV prevention and care among men having sex with men should be prioritized to prevent the further spread of the virus, WHO said. Enacting or enforcing legislation outlawing discrimination against people living with HIV and members of other vulnerable groups would enhance the effectiveness of the response to HIV.

Men who have sex with men have been identified as one of the most-at-risk populations for HIV/AIDS. A review in December 2007 showed that in Cambodia and Viet Nam, men who have sex with men are more likely to contract HIV compared to the general population. And in China, the risk of infection by men who have sex with men is 45 times higher than for men in general. Asia is believed to have the world's largest number of men having sex with men, estimated at 10 million.

Despite this, a recent UNAIDS report showed that targeted prevention interventions are reaching only 1% of the MSM population. The report also showed that in most countries in Asia and the Pacific, national strategic plans for HIV/AIDS do not cover interventions for MSM and transgender individuals.

The lack of better access to HIV/AIDS services can be traced to the stigma and discrimination associated with male-to-male sex, which is frowned upon in some societies, and to breaches of human rights, including the right to better health. In addition, discrimination prevents men who have sex with men from disclosing their sexual orientation or utilizing HIV services, resulting in increased vulnerability.

Participating countries in the conference, which will take place in Hong Kong, are Australia, Cambodia, China, Fiji, Hong Kong (China), Japan, the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore and Viet Nam.

For more information, please contact Dr Massimo Ghidinelli, WHO Regional Adviser in HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections, at mobile phone: +63 928.501.20.66; e-mail: ghidinellim@wpro.who.int For interview requests, please contact, Ms Marilu Lingad, at mobile phone: +63 918 918 1094;
e-mail: lingadm@wpro.who.int or Mr Peter Cordingley, Public Information Officer, at mobile phone: +63 2 918 963 0224; e-mail: cordingleyp@wpro.who.int.

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