Hope sets tone for AIDS congress

The 8th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) opened here in Colombo with a strong message of hope, anchored on the fact that the world’s most populous region still has relatively low prevalence rates of HIV despite problems of poverty, discrimination and stigma. Some 2,500 participants from 70 countries are in the capital of this South Asian island nation for the congress, which runs from Aug. 19 to 23. Academics, health experts, activists and people living with HIV and AIDS will assess the pandemic in the region, sharing lessons learned and looking at efforts to contain it.

Speaking at the conference on Sunday evening, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse said that the region can take heart in the fact that high literacy rates in some countries, social welfare programmes and increased understanding have contributed to success stories in containing the pandemic. “At first glance, it may seem that there is no threat to us,” he said. But “low prevalence does not mean no threat,” he cautioned, referring to the case of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has a low prevalence rate of 0.1% in a population of 20 million. Up to June 2007, 886 persons had been diagnosed as HIV-positive, official figures say, although estimates of the number of people living with HIV in the country was 4,500 at end-2005. “Comparatively small as this figure is, in the international context of this great menace, we will not pat ourselves on our backs. For every death is one too many. Every victim is one too many,” said Rajapakse.

Both UNAIDS executive director Peter Piot, whose remarks were read by his deputy Deborah Langley, and Michel Kazatchkine, head of the Global Fund To Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, agreed that political will is a “vital element” in Asia-Pacific’s handling of the pandemic. “A purely health-centred approach is not adequate in tackling HIV and AIDS,” Langley said before ICAAP opened. She said that the Asia-Pacific, given its relatively low prevalence rates, must focus on keeping these rates low, provide treatment to those who need it, and combine this with strengthening health systems as well. According to WHO figures, between 2.8 and 9.8 million people were living with HIV in Asia in 2006. Between 140,000 and 610,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses that same year.

Langley also noted some positive trends in HIV and AIDS in the past few decades. While funds going into HIV and AIDS used to be just $250 million a year in 1996, the amount to be spent on AIDS in 2007 is expected to reach $10 billion for low and middle-income countries. Still, this figure is far from the estimated $18 billion needed in the global response to the pandemic, she said.

She added that countries in the region must get to “know your epidemics at the national level,” adding that beyond national average figures, there is a need to address trends that show higher prevalence rates in some regions of a country, or among specific groups. For instance, 39% and 46% of new infections in Cambodia and Thailand, respectively, are among married women. “Sometimes, prevalence rates are rising for what we thought were low-risk groups,” Langley said. In Vietnam, the HIV prevalence rate is low but the pandemic is present in all 64 provinces and is very high in some communities, she added. — IPS