Report: AIDS Spreading Rapidly in Asia

HIV is spreading faster in Asia than in Africa, and the Asian AIDS epidemic is worsening because of complacent governments, inadequate health care and widespread prejudice, a new report has warned.

"Time to Act," released Tuesday by ActionAid-Asia (search) says HIV/AIDS has reached a critical point in the region and is threatening millions of lives in India, China and other populous nations.

ActionAid-Asia is part of the global development group ActionAid, which works in 40 countries.

"It is both a cause and consequence of poverty and human rights violations," the report said, adding that unprotected sex, drug abuse and unsafe medical practices are the triggers that are helping the epidemic to spread.

In Asia 7.2 million people are now living with the virus, five million of them in India and China. An estimated half million people died of AIDS and almost one million contracted HIV in the last year in Asia. Africa has 29 million infected people.

"Asia may not be Africa, but the early warning signals are scary and clear. Africa's experience shows HIV/AIDS can destroy development gains of several decades and social composition of peoples in a single stroke," the report said.

It warns that seemingly low prevalence rates in countries such as India and China are disguising huge actual numbers and the existence of hotspots of infection.

"At the same time grossly inadequate surveillance systems are compounding and encouraging complacency," it said.

But it is the seriousness of localized epidemics in several countries that make predictions for the spread of HIV really terrifying, according to the report.

For example, in many parts of China, which has an estimated 1 million people infected, the public health system is in chaos.

The country's inadequate health infrastructure, a lack of trained doctors and social workers and poor supervision compounds the risk of developing drug resistant "super-infections," the report says.

In Afghanistan, government statistics state there are just 15 infections in a population of 22 million.

But the figures are "likely to vastly understate the problem in a country beset by conflict, massive movement of people, desperate poverty and a growing drug problem," said Philippa Sackett of ActionAid Afghanistan.

The report notes that up to 7,000 Nepali girls are trafficked into Indian brothels every year, and over 100,000 are currently employed as prostitutes (search) in India's commercial capital, Bombay, a large number of them infected with HIV.

Whilst prevalence rates in Japan remain well below one percent, with just 12,595 infected, experts fear the actual number is five times higher.

Unprotected sex (search) among young Japanese is a major cause of new infections fueled by lack of awareness, increasing sexual activity and declining condom use, the report said.

It says weak laws are failing to protect the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, who are subject to discrimination and stigmatization.

"Whilst public health specialists recommend public education and prevention, lawmakers prefer testing, criminalization and deportation, driving the epidemic underground," it said.

The report urges governments to learn from initiatives that have yielded positive results elsewhere, and to work together to ensure that pharmaceutical companies reduce the price of essential medicines.

"Compassion and a humane response are necessary to deal with HIV/AIDS," said ActionAid-Asia's director, John Samuel.

"But compassion cannot be a substitute for government action. Health care is not a matter of charity but a right," he said.