6 million people living with HIV in Asia: countries striving to achieve "Zero New Infections" by 2015

Bangkok (Thailand), 1 March 2012
- Despite legal and police barriers, some countries have made significant headway in cutting down on new HIV infections among key affected populations such as people who inject drugs in East Asia and the Pacific. Much more, however needs to be done.

This was the key message from Gary Lewis, UNODC Regional Representative during a recent meeting on HIV/AIDS involving over 260 delegates from 34 countries and territories in Thailand. Billed as the Asia-Pacific High-level Intergovernmental Meeting on the Assessment of Progress Against Commitments in the Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS and the Millennium Development Goals, the event was chaired by His Excellency Mr Ratu Epeli, the President of Fiji, during 6-8 February in Bangkok.

In her opening remarks Ms Noeleen Heyzer, the Executive Secretary of ESCAP, noted that there are two new HIV infections for every person who begins treatment and that the epidemic is outpacing the response. Countries are making progress, however, and new infections are down by 20 per cent compared with 2001.

However, many countries also reported that current laws and policies continue to undermine effective responses to HIV. Delegates heard new findings by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, chaired by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the former President of Brazil, which reviewed laws and policies across the world. Among ESCAP Member States 35 countries criminalize sex work, 22 countries criminalize same-sex relations and 16 provide for the death penalty for drug-related offences. A total of 12 countries detain people who use drugs or sex workers in compulsory centres.

In addressing the drug-related part of the HIV epidemic, Mr Lewis drew delegates' attention to positive examples from countries such as China where methadone maintenance treatment - currently accessed by over 140,000 opioid-dependent people - has led to less drug use, a reduction in crime, an increase in quality of life and employment opportunities. Above all, he noted, it has averted a significant number of new HIV infections among people who inject drugs.

He also praised the Government of Malaysia which has taken a visionary step to transform former drug rehabilitation centres into "Cure and Care 1 Malaysia Clinics" where people who use drugs seek drug treatment, HIV, harm reduction and a range of other services on a voluntary basis."

In Vietnam, Mr. Lewis noted, between 100-200 sterile needles and syringes were distributed per each person who inject drugs in 2010.

As a member of The Coalition of Asia Pacific Regional Networks on HIV/AIDS (Seven Sisters), the Asian Network of People who Use Drugs (ANPUD), urged governments to promote access to harm reduction services and to end compulsory detention of sex workers and people who use drugs, among other.

The High Level Meeting concluded by endorsement of a Regional Framework to Support the Implementation of International and Region-specific Commitments by the Member States, which also reflects the statements made by country delegations as well as civil society organizations during the deliberations.