Sun, Jul 11, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Vietnam gears up for war on AIDS with US backing

FIGHTING CHANCE International organizations say the country of 80 million presents the perfect test case for whether targeted funding can stem a crisis in the making


Clad in red or blue uniforms, hundreds of young women stream to and fro through the iron gates, some heading to work as embroiderers, others coming back from farm fields.

But this place is different. It's a rehabilitation camp for 560 drug addicts and prostitutes, a quarter of whom are infected with HIV.

They are living warnings of Vietnam's new war -- against AIDS and the threat posed to its economic miracle by spiraling infection rates. But now the country has a fighting chance of stopping the epidemic.

Two weeks ago, US President George W. Bush added Vietnam to his US$15 billion global AIDS initiative, the first and only Asian country on the list of 15. It was a surprising and controversial decision to those who had expected the choice to be India or China, with their much larger infected populations.

US Global AIDS Coordinator Randall Tobias was in Hanoi on Friday, seeking a clearer picture of the Communist country's struggle to keep the disease contained.

International organizations, aid groups and US officials in Hanoi say the country of 80 million presents the perfect test case for whether targeted funding can stem an AIDS crisis in the making.

They cite several factors: a disease that hasn't yet spread into the general population, effective local prevention programs, and a renewed commitment from the country's leadership.

"Vietnam is at a place where a combined effort could result in arresting a major epidemic -- so you could have a success story on AIDS instead of a tragedy," said Jordan Ryan, head of the UN Development Program.

Most of Vietnam's estimated 200,000 infected people are intravenous drug users and prostitutes. But recent figures suggest that the disease has begun making inroads into the greater public -- through men infecting wives and mothers infecting newborns. Experts worry that new HIV infections have increased tenfold in the last seven years -- with most victims in their 20s -- and could easily soar to 1 million people by 2010, a rate proportionally even higher than China's or India's.

"Injection drug use is the engine of the epidemic. But sexual transmission is where the real epidemic explodes. We potentially have a major epidemic on our hands," said Nancy Fee, country coordinator for UNAIDS.

What stung the government into action, say public health workers and international aid groups, was the threat to the young, strong, inexpensive labor force that has powered Vietnam's economic growth, second only to China's in the region.

One in 75 households has an HIV-positive family member, according to UNAIDS. "Vietnam has done so much to try and build a future for itself after the war. ... Now the epidemic is moving to threaten that future and I think that began hitting home," Fee said.

The AIDS strategy announced this year has been praised for its comprehensive and progressive approach -- which promotes condom usage and needle exchanges.

Under the Bush program, Vietnam would be eligible for an extra US$8 million to US$10 million a year. Vietnam currently spends about US$20 million annually on AIDS programs, and 80 percent of that funding comes from international donors.

Money could also go toward innovative programs like the one at the Ba Vi rehabilitation center, located 65km northwest of Hanoi, where women serve mandatory two-year programs aimed at detoxification, health education and job training.

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