Asia poised for explosion in HIV cases: Terry McCarthy reports from Yokohama on fears that the region

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The Independent Online
ASIA IS set to overtake Africa as the world's worst Aids-infected area, possibly by the end of the century, according to experts attending the conference.

Despite the millions of dollars invested in anti-Aids drugs, most conference participants agree that the simple rubber condom offers the best hope, for the time being, of containing the global spread. 'Asian leaders do not believe, as many others have believed, that it will not happen to you,' said Michael Merson, executive director of the World Health Organisation's Aids programme. 'Do whatever you need to fight discrimination to provide the most vulnerable citizens the information and means needed, including condoms, to protect themselves.' The WHO says that the rate of increase is already the fastest in the world.

Dr Merson quoted estimates that Thailand's economy could suffer an Aids-related loss of nearly dollars 11bn by 2000, with the damage to Asia as a whole between dollars 38bn and dollars 52bn.

The danger for Asia is that HIV infections could explode in a short, rapid burst, as is believed to have happened in Africa, the continent worst hit by Aids, with two-thirds of the world's estimated 4 million cases. The WHO estimates that half of the HIV infections in the 12-year epidemic in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Zambia occurred in the first three to four years.

There is already evidence that Asia could be on the verge of a similar phenomenon. In South and South-east Asia, HIV infections have increased by 1 million over the past year to 2.5 million, and Aids cases have multiplied

by a factor of eight. Estimated HIV infections in Thailand have risen tenfold since early 1990, and tripled in India since 1992.

After repeated bad news earlier this year from the pharmaceutical industry, which appears to be making little progress in its battle against Aids, the focus of interest has been more on preventive measures, which in most cases means condom use. 'People are giving up on things, saying this conference has nothing to offer, no scientific success stories,' said Chris Norwood, who set up 'Women against Aids' in the Bronx district of New York in 1989. 'So we are pointing to some success, in boosting condom use in one of the areas most badly affected by Aids anywhere.'

Ms Norwood's volunteers, who are mostly either HIV positive or have family members who have contracted the virus, spend two months learning how to counsel others on Aids prevention and the use of condoms, and then start passing on what they have learnt to their peers.

There are dozens of representatives of similar programmes from all around the world among the 12,000 delegates in Yokohama and all have problems to share on raising Aids awareness in their own societies.

Aids is quietly infiltrating even the most unlikely places: Dr Mohamed Abdelaal Hassan, from the Arab International Centre for Fighting Aids, gave a paper on The Sexual Behaviour of inhabitants of Cemeteries in Cairo, in which he pointed out that housing shortages and poverty were forcing people to live in the many small sepulchres in graveyards, and where overcrowding was leading to irresponsible promiscuity.