BANGKOK�Developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region must act fast against the AIDS pandemic or risk compromising their economic and social development, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has warned ahead of a major AIDS conference in Bangkok.

�Here in Asia, HIV/AIDS stands at a turning point,� Annan said in a speech to a meeting of ministers from the Asia-Pacific region. �The spread can be turned back when, but only when there is a coordinated response, from all sectors of society and every branch of government.�

More than 8 million people in Asia are living with HIV/AIDS, the second worst affected region in the world after Africa. About 500,000 died of AIDS last year in Asia and 1.1 million became newly infected.

While experts predict Asia�s HIV epidemic will not reach sub-Saharan levels of 15 percent or more of the adult population, reaching 2-3 percent levels still means �huge trouble� for Asian countries, said Tim Brown, a senior research fellow who focuses on HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific at the East-West Center in Honolulu.

�The countries of this region have to wake up to reality,� Brown said. �Two and three percent levels are possible in much of Asia. Those levels are sufficiently bad that leaders must take an active role.�

�The most dangerous thing is that the numbers stay below the threshold of political attention while the epidemics continue to grow steadily,� he added.

Thailand welcomed delegates to the International AIDS Conference Sunday with a shower of free condoms of all shapes and sizes handed out in public places. The southeast Asian nation was considered a model of openness in fighting the spread of the virus a decade ago, but infections have been rising once more as the effects of the education campaign begin to wear off.

In a report released this week, the U.N. AIDS agency said Thailand�s impressive fight against HIV is being undermined by complacency. It said Thailand could face a resurgence unless it targets high-risk groups such as men who have sex with men and intravenous drug users.

While the theme of the conference was �Access for All�, organizers had already drawn criticism from aid agencies for not including representatives of migrant workers in the region, many of whom come from poorer neighboring countries like Laos, Burma and Cambodia.

In Cambodia, of the 20 new HIV infections occurring daily, seven are housewives and seven are babies. In a country of 13 million, 2.68 percent of the population aged 15-49 are HIV infected, the highest rate in the Asia-Pacific region.

Married, monogamous women make up 42 percent of new HIV infections in Cambodia, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRCRCS) said in a statement ahead of the Bangkok conference.

If the trend continues, Cambodia, one of the world�s poorest countries, faces the prospect of losing the core of its society and economy�men and women in the prime of their lives who support children and elderly parents, the IFRCRCS said.

In China, where the virus has spread to all 31 provinces, 10 million people may be infected by HIV by 2010 unless effective action is taken, UNAIDS has warned.

Today, almost five million people of working age in Asia have HIV, according to a recent global study by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which referred specifically to Cambodia, China, India, Burma, and Thailand, the five Asian countries included in the study.

By 2010, in the absence to increased access to treatment, almost 10 million Asian workers will have died since 1981, and by 2015, the total figure will top 18 million, the ILO said.

The East-West Center�s Brown said conservative attitudes in Asian countries often prevent data collection and limit work among the vulnerable populations.

�Public service announcements don�t have a big impact, but we do know that programs for sex work and drug use are effective in an Asian context. The problem is that we just aren�t doing them on a scale that will make a difference.� #####


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