Although the Asia-Pacific region has witnessed widespread gains in combating the spread of HIV, experts at a United Nations meeting were told today that the epidemic is still outpacing the region’s efforts against new infections.

The three-day conference, which opened today at the Bangkok headquarters of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), will mark the first-time government leaders, senior officials, civil society representatives and people living with HIV from 34 Asia-Pacific countries meet in a single forum to tackle the ongoing epidemic in the region.

“The Asia-Pacific region has seen impressive gains in addressing HIV,” said ESCAP Executive Secretary Noeleen Heyzer in her address to the gathering, “but the epidemic is still outpacing the response,” she warned.

Over the past decade, the Asia-Pacific saw a 20 per cent drop in HIV infection rates and over one million people in the region obtained access to life-saving antiretroviral treatment. The incidence of HIV among children below the age of 15 also declined.

However, while new infections in high HIV-prevalence countries such as India and Thailand tapered off between 2001 and 2009, infections in low HIV-prevalence countries such as Bangladesh and the Philippines increased by 25 per cent over the same period.

“To move us closer towards the vision of zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths, we must ensure sustainable and high-impact responses by explicitly and meaningfully addressing HIV within the broader inclusive development agenda of the Asia-Pacific region,” Dr. Heyzer added.

In Asia, HIV is largely spread through unsafe drug use, sex work and among men who have sex with men (MSM) – the latter comprising a major source of new infections in urban areas. Without significant investment and scaling up of MSM programmes, the conference was told, the MSM demographic is projected to account for roughly half of new HIV infections in Asia by 2020.

In addition, an estimated 90 per cent of Asia-Pacific countries have punitive laws, policies or practices that block access to services for people at risk of and living with HIV/AIDS. Stigma and discrimination are also widespread among the infected, contributing to loss of jobs and diminished access to health care.

“For the first time in history we have the possibility to end AIDS and Asia-Pacific nations have shown we can lead the world in reducing infections, increasing treatment and making an impact,” said Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, President of Fiji. “But we cannot ignore the challenges our region faces and how these can jeopardize our ability to progress,” he noted. –