A meeting of United Nations AIDS officials, government representatives and activists in Thailand has urged Asian countries to reform laws to reduce the spread of the AIDS virus among marginalized groups such as sex workers and injecting drug users.
Currently eight million people live with HIV/AIDS in Asia, half of them in India. In the past year more than one million new HIV infections were reported in the region, with China recording almost 200 new cases a day.
At the three-day meeting in Thailand, which ended Thursday, UNAIDS director, Michel Sidibe, said law reform is needed to reduce discrimination against high-risk groups such as men who have sex with men and injecting drug users.
"It is legal and policy reform which is urgently needed to make sure that these issues could be addressed also from the perspective of the human rights standard," Sidibe said.
China says it has about 650,000 people living with AIDS. It has recently issued comprehensive regulations spelling out the rights and obligations of infected people in a bid to halt discrimination and improve the fight against the disease.
But Don Baxter, executive director for the Australian Federation of AIDS Organizations, says Asian countries often fail to adequately support marginalized groups with a high proportion of AIDS carriers.
Baxter says governments need to have genuine community and civil society participation in their responses. He says political leaders in Asia are often reluctant to openly discuss issues such as homosexuality and drug use.
"Many Asian and Pacific Governments – particularly the former communist governments – are just not used to opposition – whether it’s behind closed doors or in public," Baxter said. "So that’s certainly a major lesson or direction Asian and Pacific governments need to move in – listening to people actually affected by HIV."
Asia’s tough stance on drug users and the trafficking of opiates often means programs such as promoting needle exchange to avoid the spread of AIDS among injecting drug users get little support.
The meeting in Thailand also looked at methods of lowering the cost in Asia of anti-retroviral drugs needed to slow the progress of the virus or prevent mother to child transmission.
The meeting, attended by over 200 delegates from over 20 countries, was organized by UNAIDS as a step towards achieving its goal of universal access to AIDS prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010.
The goal was set after G8 group of industrialized nations pledged $50 billion to developing countries to deal with the pandemic.
The United Nations General Assembly is due to meet in July in a special session to assess the program’s progress since its launch in 2001.
Ron Corben, Bangkok, 16 February 2006