Mon, Jul 19, 2004 - Page 1 News List

AIDS risk to Taiwan increasing

HEALTH WARNING The number of HIV infections has increased by 15 percent a year since 1997 and the AIDS crisis in China has repercussions for this country

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

While dire warnings of a possible AIDS surge in this country grabbed the limelight during the opening of the 7th Taipei Conference on HIV/AIDS yesterday, the safety of Taiwanese businesspeople in the China also prompted concerns.

The latest statistics shows that there are 6,255 people living with AIDS in this country since its first case was reported in 1984. The incidence of HIV infection has increased by approximately 15 percent every year since 1997.

Given society's more open attitude to sex and changing behavioral patterns, the virus is threatening to spill beyond traditional high-risk groups such as gay men and drug users.

"If we fail to take strict measures to curb the epidemic, there will be 13,258 AIDS cases by 2010 and 40,655 by 2020," said Twu Shiing-jer (涂醒哲), chairperson of the Taiwan AIDS Society. "The social losses incurred will reach US$1.6 billion."

"The number of reported HIV/AIDS cases is expected to exceed 1,000 in 2004 alone," Twu said.

The government has made substantial efforts to halt the spread of the disease. In 2001, an AIDS Prevention Commission was founded under the Executive Yuan to coordinate anti-AIDS campaigns.

Yet, according to Twu, attempts to rein in AIDS and to promote patients' rights remains an uphill battle. For instance, the mass media has done little to reduce the stigma attached to AIDS.

"Reporting often lacks real understanding of the disease. Sometimes, the stories fall into sensationalism and reinforce stereotypes of HIV carriers," Twu said.

Even some health professionals are reportedly indifferent to HIV-positive people infected.

"The separate AIDS wards in hospitals is proof of doctors' and nurses' discrimination against AIDS patients. We hope someday the AIDS patients will be able to seek diagnosis in whatever department they need to go. AIDS patients have the right to receive equal treatment as patients of any other infectious disease do," Twu said.

The government also came under fire for its lack of originality and urgency in its anti-AIDS campaign. Twu said policymakers are out of the touch with social workers and medical professionals who deal with patients face-to-face.

"We need to keep up with chan-ging social tides. How can you preach abstinence and fidelity when your son and daughter may be on their way to a home party?" said Shih Wen-yi (施文儀), deputy director-general of the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Experts also warned that the nation must step up its preventative efforts as many Asian countries are on the brink of an AIDS disaster. In many Southeast Asian countries, the disease has quickly spread from drug addicts to commercial sex workers and to the greater public.

According to Dr. Roger Detels, commercial sex workers are a continuing reservoir of infection for men across country boundaries. In this country, men who travel to Thailand, Vietnam, or China to buy sex are at high risk, as are men who marry foreign women who have not had health check-ups.

O.C. Lin (連愛珠), the chief executive of Hong Kong AIDS Foundation, provided some staggering figures to the conference.

"Official figures shows that there are 840,000 people infected with HIV in China. But international health experts believe that the real figure lies between 1.5 million and 2 million," Lin said.

Given the Chinese government's cryptic attitude about any infection outbreak, experts believe that the official estimates are just the tip of an iceberg.

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