28 March 2008

Confronting AIDS in Asia

by Ban Ki-moon

As a Korean, and the first UN Secretary-General from Asia in more than 30 years, it's no surprise that I often speak of my home continent as a model for economic development. Yet when it comes to the AIDS epidemic, I am more disheartened than proud.

Across Asia , AIDS remains the most likely cause of death of people in their most productive years. At the rate we are going, the current 5 million Asians infected with HIV will grow to 13 million by 2020. Meanwhile the death toll mounts, with some 440,000 people succumbing to AIDS each year.

Asia 's flourishing economic prosperity does not help groups that are most vulnerable to the disease. People living with HIV—including many in low-risk groups—are denied their basic right to health.

This is deplorable, considering how little is required to contain the epidemic and help those in need. A new report, “Redefining AIDS in Asia: Crafting an effective response,” by the Commission on AIDS in Asia, an independent body initiated by UNAIDS, finds that annual investment of just thirty cents per capita can reverse the epidemic through prevention. That would translate into saving the lives of more than 200,000 people each year.

I know my continent has the resources, the technology and the ability to undertake this ambitious and life-saving mission. Asia 's fast-growing economies have emancipated millions of poor people. Most countries on the continent are on track to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, our common vision for building a better world in the 21st century.

But if we fail to act, we could threaten the very prosperity that places Asia in a position to respond effectively now. We are in danger of spinning into a vicious circle where the AIDS epidemic grows so serious as to undermine economic growth and social resilience, leading to more and more infections at ever greater cost.

Experience shows Asia 's ability to act in the face of grave threats. We saw this in the response to SARS five years ago. Beyond the immeasurable good of saving lives, action will bring a tangible economic boost. For every dollar we spend on preventing HIV today, the report notes, we will save eight dollars on treatment in the future.

Our response to AIDS is not only about money. It is, above all, about people. The stigma associated with AIDS can be worse than the disease – robbing people of access to basic human rights and health care, preventing them from living a dignified life, and deterring them from getting tested for HIV.

Some of my most inspiring experiences as Secretary-General have been my meetings with UN+, the group of our staff members living with HIV. Their courage and expertise have given me new and invaluable insights into the epidemic. Hearing from these people, who speak with such directness about their lives, I felt ashamed of the discrimination that people living with HIV often face around the world, and perhaps especially in Asia . Painful as these lessons may be, I value them and intend, on my next visit, to visit a facility or organization addressing the needs of those living with HIV and AIDS.

Listening is important. But beyond that we must engage with people living with HIV as we develop policies and carry out programmes to address the epidemic.

Women and girls are the main caregivers – and they are also disproportionately vulnerable to HIV infection. They need special attention. We must tackle social norms that prevent women from protecting themselves, including through better legislation, or better enforcement of existing laws.

And we must guard against legislation that blocks universal access by criminalizing the lifestyles of vulnerable groups. We have to find ways to reach out to sex workers, men who have sex with men and drug users, ensuring that they have what they need to protect themselves.

It starts with Asian Governments showing leadership to invest more substantially in the fight against AIDS and move resolutely to stamp out stigma and discrimination.

This June, the UN General Assembly will hold a high-level meeting offering an opportunity to take stock and advance the global response to AIDS. I personally will do all I can – as a Secretary-General and an Asian – to be at the vanguard of this effort. I look to the leaders of Asia to do the same.

via Daily Star (Lebanon)