Asia rejoices World AIDS Day with marches, education campaigns

Thousands marched in anti-AIDS rallies Thursday in India's plagued northeast, while China rolled out a campaign targeting millions of migrant workers to mark World AIDS Day. In Jakarta, the head of UNAIDS criticized Indonesia's leaders for not taking a more active role in combatting the disease before it becomes a major epidemic. Dozens of HIV-infected women stepped out of the shadows during a rally in Golaghat, a town in India's eastern Assam state, to acknowledge that they are living with the disease and should not be shunned. "I marched through the town with more than 70 HIV-positive women like me ... I'm happy many women have paid heed to our call and have openly admitted to their HIV-positive status," said Jahnabi Goswami, 28. "Men with the disease need to follow suit."

In New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said Indians must overcome traditional taboos attached to sex and discuss AIDS more openly within families and in public.

An estimated 5.1 million people are living with HIV in India, the most in any single country except South Africa. India's sparsely populated northeast, where heroin traffickers cross from Myanmar, is considered a flash point because of its high rate of infections among intravenous drug users.

Australia on Thursday announced it will spend 10 million Australian dollars (US$7.4 million; Ђ6.3 million) over five years to help India fight the virus in the northeast region. In China, the government launched an HIV campaign aimed at some 120 million migrant workers, with Chinese Central Television showing condoms being passed out to workers at a Beijing construction site.

"Because of this publicity, I really feel I learned something about the harm of AIDS and I will share what I learned with my co-workers, friends and relatives," said Li Hongjian, a young worker in a hard hat with a large red ribbon pinned to his chest. China's government estimates about 840,000 people could be infected with HIV and 80,000 others are likely living with full-blown AIDS. However, only about 167,000 cases are registered.

UNAIDS has warned those numbers could reach 10 million by 2010 without more aggressive prevention. In Jakarta, UNAIDS head Peter Piot on Thursday said Indonesia must do more to prevent a major epidemic, a day after he criticized leaders for not taking a more active role in fighting the disease. He urged President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono step up and take charge of the campaign.

"There are small but significant and rising AIDS epidemics, and this is the time for Indonesia to scale up its response to it," Piot said. An estimated 150,000 to 250,000 people are infected in the sprawling archipelago, but the virus is spreading quickly among injecting drug users, as well as sex workers and their clients.

An estimated 8.3 million people are living with HIV in Asia, with 1.1 million newly infected last year, UNAIDS said in a recent report. "Twenty-five years into the pandemic, this disease is becoming more visible in Pakistan yet continues to have an invisible face, a missing face, a young person's face. This needs to change," UNICEF representative Omar Abdi said in a statement Wednesday.

While its nationwide infection rate remains low, Pakistan contains all the ingredients for a potential HIV explosion, including poverty, illiteracy, a sex industry and injecting drug users, said Samia Hashim, UNAIDS senior national program officer in the country.

In South Korea, nearly 10,000 students at 300 high schools in Seoul were given HIV lessons. The country has identified more than 3,600 infected people. Of them, 705 have died. In addition, North Korea marked World Aids Day by saying none of its people are infected with the disease, but that some foreigners have tested HIV-positive and have been sent home at their request.

"Preventive measures against AIDS have been taken so thoroughly that people are leading a happy life free from its damage thanks to the public health policy of the government," the communist North's Minju Joson newspaper said in a report carried by its official Korean Central News Agency.

Meanwhile, 24 million of condoms were expected to be distributed in Thailand to raise awareness there, said Public Health Minister Phinij Jarusombat. In Vietnam, U.S. Ambassador Michael Marine said Wednesday more emphasis must be placed on making sure the message reaches young children, reports the AP. I.L.

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