Raising awareness of HIV
Figures presented at the meeting in Kathmandu, Nepal — which was jointly organised by UNICEF and UNAIDS — showed that from 1997 to 2001, the rate at which HIV infections are increasing in South Asia is 60 per cent, compared to 30 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Although Africa has borne the brunt so far in terms of numbers, we are seeing staggering increases in the number of new infections in some of the most populous countries of the world," says Swarup Sarkar of UNAIDS Southeast Asia.
Although the overall prevalence in South Asia — less than 1 per cent of the adult population — appears to be low, the sheer size of it population translates to a huge number of people living with HIV/AIDS. The region has over 4.2 million of the 36 million infected with HIV worldwide, with India alone accounting for 3.9 million of these, according to official estimates.
"South Asia stands at what epidemiologists call the ‘tipping point’ in the trajectory of the disease,” Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF, told the meeting.
There are unmistakable signs of an expanding epidemic. South and Southeast Asia saw a staggering 700,000 new infections last year. And in Kathmandu, HIV rates among injecting drug users soared, from under 2 per cent to 50 per cent between 1991 and 1997.
Speakers at the meeting underscored the need for governments to act now. "Immediate action can prevent at least 5 million new HIV infections by 2010 and begin to turn back the epidemic in South Asia", said Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS.
The meeting also highlighted low levels of awareness among the region’s youth who are particularly vulnerable to the disease. A recent World Bank study showed, for example, that over 95 per cent of 15-19 year olds in Bangladesh do not know a single method of HIV prevention.
Photo credit: Nrityanjali Academy