Asians Observe World AIDS Day

Dozens of HIV-infected women stepped out of the shadows in eastern India to acknowledge they have the disease and say they should not be shunned. China, in its marking of World Aids Day, began an educational campaign targeting millions of migrant workers Thursday.

In Jakarta, the head of UNAIDS criticized Indonesia's leaders for not taking a more active role in combatting the disease, and thousands marched in anti- AIDS rallies in India's plagued northeast, including in Golaghat, a town in the eastern state of Assam, where HIV-infected women spoke publicly.

"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."

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 flashpoint because of its high rate of infections among intravenous drug users.

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.

Australia on Thursday announced it will spend $7.4 million over five years to help India fight the virus in the northeast region.

China also focused attention on the disease by launching a 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 and work clothes 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 to be living with full-blown AIDS. However, only about 167,000 are registered as being infected.

UNAIDS has warned up to 10 million could be infected in China by 2010 without more aggressive prevention.

The official China Daily newspaper said injecting drug users now account for the bulk of infections, followed by unclean blood selling practices and unsafe sex.

In Jakarta, UNAIDS head Peter Piot on Thursday said Indonesia must do more faster 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, he said.

Countries across Asia said more focus must be placed on educating young people if the world has any chance of getting a grip on the disease. 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.

"In Korea, people tend to think AIDS is a problem that has nothing to do with them," said Cha Hei-sun of World Vision Korea, which sponsored the event along with the United Nation's Children's Fund. "People's awareness of the disease is really needed here."

North Korea on Thursday said 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 help 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 children to keep the disease from spreading into the general population.

"I think that education has to start very young," he said.

So far, the disease in Vietnam remains largely concentrated in high-risk groups, such as injecting drug users and sex workers, but health workers fear the virus will eventually spread to the general population and result in a major epidemic.

"It's certainly not sufficient to focus on HIV/AIDS one day a year," Marine said. "It's something that should be in the forefront of people's minds all the time."