Thursday October 4, 2001

Explosive' AIDS Epidemics Hit Asian Sex Workers

byWendy Pugh


MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Prostitutes in China, Indonesia and Vietnam are falling victim to ``explosive'' AIDS epidemics which will spread to their customers' wives and girlfriends, a U.N.-funded report said on Thursday.

While large-scale preventative action had kept the disease at bay in parts of Asia, there was ``clear potential'' for AIDS and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which causes it to spread, the Monitoring the AIDS Pandemic Network report said.

``After more than a decade of comparatively low HIV infection levels in most population groups, there is recent evidence of rapidly growing epidemics in some populations and geographic areas,'' the report said.

``A number of countries, for example China, Indonesia and Vietnam, are now experiencing explosive epidemics in different population groups.''

The report found soaring levels of HIV infection among intravenous drug users and sex workers in some regions.

``We are kidding ourselves if we think Asia is not at risk for a major AIDS epidemic, it is already there,'' UNAIDS executive director Peter Piot told a media conference.

HIV testing of sex workers in three provinces in China showed recent rapid rises in infection rates.

In Guangxi province, 9.9 percent of sex workers were found to have HIV in the second quarter of 2000. The figure rose to 10.7 percent by the fourth quarter of the same year.

``As millions of men frequent sex workers every year, it is inevitable that HIV infection among these men will rise and that the fatal virus will eventually get passed on to their wives and regular girlfriends,'' the report said.

In August, China admitted it was facing a ``very serious'' AIDS epidemic with HIV cases up by two thirds in a year.

In Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, HIV infection rates among sex workers and their clients increased to more than 20 percent in 2000 from virtually nil in 1996.

Indonesia recorded a jump in HIV among sex workers to 26 percent in three geographic areas from six percent previously. There were also outbreaks of the virus among injecting drug users around the country.


The AIDS Pandemic Network has more than 100 members in 40 countries and receives funding from the Joint U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

``Some countries in the region began prevention efforts early and they are reaping the benefits today,'' Piot said.

``Elsewhere, however, epidemics will continue their natural course unless prevention programs quickly reach the population groups most vulnerable to HIV,'' he said.

The report noted the success of prevention programs in hard-hit Thailand and Cambodia in limiting the spread of HIV and said there was great potential for containment in Asia because most of the epidemics in the region remained concentrated.

``The good news for Asia is that because the majority of the population does not engage in high-risk behavior, focusing on those who do is both affordable and effective,'' it said.

The report said only three Asian countries -- Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand -- had registered nationwide AIDS prevalence rates of more than one percent, compared with rates 10 or more times higher in some African countries.

South Africa has the largest HIV-positive population in the world, with officials estimating 4.7 million people, or one in nine, are infected.

The report said Asian national figures hid concentrations in certain groups and were meaningless in countries like China and India, where some regions have populations larger than many countries.

In the Indian states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu -- each with populations of more than 55 million  more than three percent of pregnant women and over 10 percent of people with sexually transmitted diseases have HIV.

``Already today I think about a third or 40 percent of the world's people with HIV are living in Asia,'' Piot said.

The ``Status and Trends of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Asia and the Pacific'' report was released ahead of the Sixth International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, being held in Melbourne.