HIV infections in Asia could more than double in 5 years

The number of people in Asia infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS could more than double to 20 million over the next five years without a better government response and more funding, officials warned Friday.

"At the current level of inadequate response, it is expected this number will rise to about 20 million in the next five years," said the independent Commission on Aids in Asia that is funded by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS or UNAIDS.

There are currently around 8.6 million people infected in Asia with HIV.

It said the number of deaths currently average around 500,000 yearly and financial losses to the Asian region are estimated at US$10 billion (EUR7.5 billion) annually. But that economic cost is predicted to rise to as high as US$29 billion (EUR21.72 billion) per year if the epidemic is not controlled within the next five years.

Despite these projections, investments on HIV control in the region remain extremely low at ten percent of the required US$5 billion (EUR3.74 billion) per year, it added.

UNAIDS data show the number of infected people receiving antiretroviral therapy, which inhibits the replication of the HIV virus, has increased more than threefold since 2003, but they represent only 16 percent of the total of those in need of treatment in Asia.

Only Thailand is providing treatment to at least 50 percent of those in need, UNAIDS said.

The nine-member commission of economists, policy makers and civil society members was created in 2006 to analyze the socio-economic impact of HIV/AIDS and make policy recommendations on how it can be mitigated. The commission is holding its two-day Southeast Asia Sub-Regional workshop in Manila until Friday.

Chakravarthy Rangarajan, chairman of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's economic advisory council and head of the commission, told reporters that while the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is low in Southeast Asia, the region is populous, making the number of infections high. It also has a huge number of mobile workers, who risk spreading HIV.

He also said there was a need to mobilize domestic funds to control HIV/AIDS in the region, because more than 80 percent of funding currently comes from foreign aid organizations.

In Southeast Asia, Laos and the Philippines are among those which have low HIV prevalence rates, while Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand are among those which have a high prevalence of the virus, according to J. V. R. Prasada Rao, a UNAIDS director and a member of the commission.

The commission said the reasons for the inadequate response in the region are manifold, ranging from low levels of awareness and understanding among policy makers of the long term impact of HIV/AIDS to a difficulty in predicting the dynamics of the disease progression, and a lack of funding.

Sex remains taboo, with very little encouragement for sex and family education for young people. Multi-partner sex and injecting drug use, which mainly drive the epidemic, are criminal acts in the eyes of the law, resulting in infected populations remaining highly stigmatized and deprived of even limited health care services, it added.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova