Mon, Jul 05, 2004 - Page 5 News List

AIDS conference to focus on Asian threat

PANDEMIC China, India and Indonesia, home to more than a third of humanity, are ripe targets for the disease, as are the former Soviet-bloc countries, experts say

AFP , PARIS

A woman participant dances while David Gere, left, brother of Hollywood actor Richard Gere, carries an Indian boy during an AIDS-awarness walk in Calcutta yesterday. More than 50 participants from India, the US, South Africa, Suriname and the UK took part in the walk at the end of a four-day seminar supported by the Gere Foundation and the American Center ahead of the international AIDS summit in Bangkok this week.

PHOTO: AFP

Top researchers, policymakers and activists head to Bangkok this week to assess the global AIDS pandemic as the killer disease is poised to ravage Eastern Europe and Asia's most populous countries.

Up to 20,000 people are registered for the conference starting on Sunday, making it the biggest potential turnout for any meeting in the 23-year history of AIDS and the first time this key event will be held in a developing country in Asia.

Ahead of the conference, the UN agency UNAIDS will tomorrow issue its first detailed update on the world epidemic in two years, giving the latest estimated toll of deaths and new infections and country-by-country figures.

Since it first came to light in 1981, acquired immune deficiency syndrome has left no cranny of the world unscathed.

According to previous estimates, the disease had claimed some 25 million to 26 million lives as of last year, and around 40 million people were living with the disease or the virus that causes it. Around 14,000 more people each day become infected.

There is no cure for HIV, only antiretroviral drugs which keep the virus at bay and which are only just now starting to trickle into poor countries that need them most. And any vaccine to prevent infection seems to lie years away.

Ironically, says UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot, the picture is brighter today than it has been in years.

"The landscape of AIDS has changed quite dramatically," he said in a phone interview. "In developing countries, our work has changed, especially in Africa."

The main improvement, he said, is that money is at last starting to flow in big volumes, with funds reaching more than US$5 billion this year alone.

This is still not enough to meet needs, but -- combined with big price cuts for drugs -- it has given a kickstart to the UN's goal of providing three million poor people with antiretroviral therapy by the end of next year.

China, India and Indonesia -- Asia's Big Three, accounting for more than a third of humanity -- are ripe targets for AIDS, as are the former Soviet-bloc countries, experts say.

Each nation is different, but a common thread binds them. The bitter experience of the US, Europe and Africa shows how ignorance, stigma, official indifference and poor resources become a lethal combination, enabling the virus to leap out of small, localized demographic pools and into the population mainstream.

"The handshake of [Chinese] Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) last year with an AIDS patient was, I think, one of the most significant events in the issue of AIDS of the year. China is waking up, and it will move," Piot said.

But, he said, the level of political awareness was not the same in Eastern Europe, facing the fastest-growing HIV spread of any region in the world.

As for India and its neighbors, "the leaders are in a state of denial and there is a very high level of discomfort to even talk about it," Praful Patel, the World Bank's regional vice president, complained last Wednesday. "[They thought] HIV-AIDS is an African problem and it cannot happen in South Asia."

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