26 March 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE ON ‘REDEFINING AIDS IN ASIA - CRAFTING AN EFFECTIVE RESPONSE’


Almost 5 million people in Asia had HIV and 300,000 had died last year of HIV-related diseases.  By 2020, another 8 million would become infected, costing the region $2 billion annually and pushing 6 million people into poverty.  What was more, the killer disease could emerge as the leading cause of death among 15 to 44 year olds.  But, Asian nations could escape that dark scenario by investing 30 cents per capita annually on focused prevention.


Those were among the findings of the Redefining AIDS in Asia -- Crafting an Effective Response report just published by the Commission on AIDS in Asia and introduced at a United Nations Headquarters press conference today.  Prior to the briefing, the Commission presented its report to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.


“These numbers do indicate the seriousness of the problem that we face,” said Chakravarthi Rangarajan, Chairman of both the independent nine-member Commission and the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India.


He said Asian countries had the resources, technology and organizational capacity to vastly scale up their response, but strong Government leadership and action, with a particular focus on those who largely spread the disease -- commercial sex workers and their clients, intravenous drug users and men having sex with other men -- were lacking.  “Without an enhanced level of political commitment, it will not be possible to bring out a significant change in the situation,” he added.


So far, only the Heads of Government of India and Thailand were in charge of their respective national commissions focusing on HIV control, he said.  Other countries in the region must follow suit.  And they must prepare biennial impact assessment reports, set up watchdog bodies to monitor anti-HIV programmes, decriminalize commercial sex and intravenous drug use and involve community-based organizations in treatment and prevention.  Further, they must create vast social security networks, with special attention on vulnerable groups, such as women, children and orphans.


Countries spending on average 50 cents per capita could, in fact, provide HIV prevention and treatment for 80 per cent of their populations, he said, adding that every $1 spent on early prevention -- particularly through the use of affordable condoms and clean needles -- saved $8 in treatment costs later on.  At present, donors provided the lion’s share of funding for such programmes.  But, Governments really needed to invest more.


Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), agreed, saying that less than 20 per cent of the resources required to tackle AIDS in Asia were now available.  The Commission’s report called for both increased funds and making the money currently available work as effectively as possible for the people on the ground through programmes tailored to each Asian country’s specific needs.  “The time is gone when, with a blueprint for the whole world, we can stop this epidemic,” Dr. Piot said.


He added that the report was the first highly comprehensive study on HIV in Asia.  “It tackles some really tough issues that nobody likes to deal with,” he said.  The report called for political, religious, business and local community leaders to speak out against discrimination, repeal laws that discriminated against men who have sex with men and support HIV-prevention services for sex workers.  Partnerships with community groups that treated HIV victims were also essential.  “It’s simply an illusion to think that one can stop an epidemic without involving the people affected by the epidemic,” he said.


Echoing that claim, Frika Chia Iskandar, Coordinator of the Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS, said civil society’s role in stemming HIV was crucial.  “We can be part of the solution,” she said, stressing the importance of local community outreach to distribute condoms and clean needles, educate people about prevention and treatment, and reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with the disease.  Such efforts, however, were illegal in many Asian countries.  Non-governmental organizations must take the Commission’s report to their respective Governments to demand the legal protection, policy space and the action necessary to stem the epidemic.


During the ensuing question-and-answer period, a reporter asked why the report did not cover Central Asian nations.  In response, Mr. Piot said those countries -- which had some of the fastest growing HIV rates in the world and were transit points for drug shipments -- would be covered separately.  He added that a major HIV conference in May in Moscow would focus on Eastern European and Central Asia nations.


Another correspondent asked if India had the highest prevalence of HIV in the world.  Mr. Rangarajan said that, while an estimated 2.7 million people in India were living with HIV, the highly populated country’s prevalence rate was actually low, at less than 0.5 per cent.  He also dismissed the reporter’s claim that India had been in denial about its HIV problem, saying India’s national AIDS control organization had existed for some time and was actively involved in combating the disease.


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For information media • not an official record