Monday, August 18, 2003

Ben Rowse

Billions more condoms needed to halt HIV/AIDS epidemic in Asia

HANOI — Billions more condoms are needed to prevent the escalation of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Asia, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Monday, calling on the region to put safety before pleasure.

Asia-Pacific, which has seven million people living with HIV, is set to become the epicentre of the global pandemic in the next decade unless massive prevention efforts are undertaken immediately, the organization said.

It warned that at least 30 million people could be infected with HIV in India and China alone by 2010.

"Condoms save lives. We need to vigorously step up promotion of this life-saving device to prevent millions of people getting infected," said Dr Giovanni Deodato, the WHO representative to Laos.

His comments came ahead of Monday's opening of a regional meeting in Vientiane on the "100 percent condom use programme", a strategy to promote condom use in the sex industry, one of the most high-risk areas for HIV infection.

The four-day conference in the Lao capital brings together central and local government health officials from across the region.

"Condom use is still low in most countries in the region, including in many sex establishments, fuelling the spread of HIV," the WHO said.

Globally, an estimated six to nine billion condoms are distributed annually, but some 24 billion are needed, it said in a statement.

Of this total, over one billion condoms are needed for China's estimated six million sex workers, the WHO added, citing studies last year showing that fewer than 20 percent of Chinese sex workers use prophylactics regularly.

"A substantial proportion of HIV infections in Asia are attributable to commercial sex. Epidemics can explode with only a small pool of sex workers infected with HIV, as seen in Thailand", the UN agency said.

The adoption of the "100 percent" programme, however, has led to sharp declines in HIV infections, the global health body said.

"The programme has prevented a few million HIV infections in Thailand. This year, the Thai Ministry of Public Health will distribute 26 million condoms free to vulnerable groups."

The WHO also cited the example of Cambodia, where a record 20 million condoms were sold last year — or 50,000 a day, representing a massive 200 percent growth in sales over the last 10 years.

The programme is also currently being piloted in sex establishments in China, Myanmar, Mongolia and Vietnam. Similar projects were also initiated recently in the Philippines and Laos.

"In all these countries, condom use needs to be considerably expanded, particularly in the sex industry," the WHO said, pointing to the high prevalence of sexually transmitted infections in China, Laos, Mongolia, the Philippines and among Pacific islanders.

A study of men attending clinics treating sexual diseases in southern Vietnam found 75 percent had visited a sex worker in the last three years but only seven percent used condoms regularly, the WHO said. Seventy percent of them had never used condoms.

In China, 26 percent of Chinese sex workers have never used a condom even once, according to government surveys. In 1995, this figure stood at seventy percent.

"Nearly everywhere in Asia, more efforts are needed to promote condoms. In many countries, they are unavailable or costly and there may be little public knowledge about their benefits," it said.

The WHO's condom programme, however, has been criticised by some non-governmental groups, which argue that the UN agency is effectively condoning prostitution by encouraging condom use among sex workers.


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Created: December 1, 2003
Last modified: January 15, 2004
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