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Old July 2nd, 2005, 06:43 AM
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Exclamation KOBE, Japan - The Asia-Pacific faces a "silent tsunami" as

HIV/AIDS rates surge in a region home to more than half the world's population, a U.N. official said Saturday.

In 2004 the region posted the world's second-highest infection rates after sub-Saharan Africa, although the overall percentage of the population infected remains relatively low compared to some African countries, said JVR Prasada Rao, regional director of the
UNAIDS support team for Asia and the Pacific.

"The virus doesn't kill hundreds of thousands at a thunderous stroke, and it doesn't provide vivid television pictures," he said during the Seventh International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific in Kobe, Japan. "Rather, it is a silent tsunami."

Rao said Asia is at a crossroads and must act now or face an explosion of new cases that will quickly move beyond groups usually considered vulnerable, such as sex workers and injecting drug users, and into the general population.

In the mid-1980s, while the United States and Europe grappled with raging epidemics, the percentage of people infected in Asia was undetectable.

In the 1990s, Thailand and Cambodia were Asia's only two countries experiencing major problems. But by 2004, the numbers in some Asian countries rivaled those in sub-Saharan Africa.

Rao stressed that it's not too late, and that strong national leadership and more funding can turn the epidemic around. However, he said, "If national responses remain as they are today, we're all in deep trouble."

"We know what to do," he said. "We are just not doing enough of it."

He said prevention programs must be expanded to target groups with spiking infection rates. Out of 16 Asian countries, a study found that only 1 percent of men who have sex with men had been reached with HIV/AIDS messages and only 5 percent of injecting drug users.

Funding must also be increased to $5 billion over the next two years to make a dent in the epidemic, and affordable treatment must be made available to more people, he said.

In India which has the world's second-highest number of HIV infections after South Africa only about 5 percent of the 5 million now infected receive treatment. But in neighboring Sri Lanka, free AIDS drugs are provided to all those infected with the virus, said the country's health minister, Nimal Siripala de Silva.

Across the region, the disease is also attacking women, who account for 40 percent of the cases in Asia, said Dr. Shigeru Omi, the
World Health Organization's Western Pacific regional director.

And even in places where treatment is available, some people refuse to go for testing or treatment out of fear their HIV status will be disclosed and they will be ostracized by society.

An HIV-positive Japanese woman who asked not to be photographed and gave her name only as "Nancy" told reporters that stigma and discrimination remain huge barriers for people living with the virus even in some highly developed countries where the latest drugs are readily available.

"We should not just complain about our situation, but take action against stigma and discrimination," she said. "I think Japan must have a lot of things to learn from other countries."

An estimated 8.2 million people had the virus in the Asia-Pacific region last year. About 1.2 million were newly infected in 2004, second only to sub-Saharan Africa.
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