Kathmandu, Nepal, 4 February 2003 - Speaking at a meeting of South Asian governments today, two United Nations leaders declared that AIDS was stalking South Asians and warned that the region has only a narrow window of opportunity for turning back the disease.
Immediate action can prevent at least 5 million new HIV infections by 2010, and successfully begin to turn back the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the South Asia region, said Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). "Delay in preventing the further spread of HIV/AIDS will only aggravate the epidemic and reverse South Asia's expected economic and social progress" Dr Piot added.
"South Asia stands at what epidemiologists call the 'tipping point' in the trajectory of disease," said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. "Despite generally low prevalence levels, it is the most-affected region in the world, after sub-Saharan Africa, in terms of numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS. As in many other parts of the world, it is the region's young people, on whom the future depends, who are particularly vulnerable to the disease," Bellamy stressed.
They were speaking at a high-level meeting on HIV/AIDS -- "Accelerating the momentum in the fight against HIV/AIDS in South Asia." The meeting was organized by UNAIDS and UNICEF, The United Nations Children's Fund on 3-4 February 2003.
The participants -- ministers, parliamentarians, religious leaders, young people and people living with HIV/AIDS from the region -- have gathered in Kathmandu to chart the course for South Asia's battle against HIV/AIDS.
"It is time for leaders in South Asia to speak out about HIV/AIDS. One of the most serious obstacles is the silence and stigma surrounding the disease", said Dr Nafis Sadik, the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for AIDS in Asia. "Every country and community in the region needs public debate and open discussion. Let us first of all be frank, and let us give a lead to others".
"Although the challenge is enormous, there are many examples in the region of communities mobilizing to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS," said Dr Piot. In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, for example, sustained prevention efforts have resulted in high awareness levels among the general population. Focused interventions have also led to significant behaviour change among female sex workers, their clients, and among young people.
But the unmistakable signs of an expanding epidemic exist throughout the region. In Kathmandu, HIV rates among injecting drug users skyrocketed, from under 2% to 50%, between 1991 and 1997, mostly among young people. According to the World Bank, over 95% of 15-19 year-old Bangladeshis do not know a single method of HIV prevention. A Sri Lanka study among 9th graders found that 63% could not name a single mode of HIV transmission and 75% could not identify a single mode of HIV prevention.
"Winning the fight against HIV/AIDS will hinge on overcoming the poverty, illiteracy and gender inequities that feed the epidemic," said the UNICEF chief. "We must ensure that every child is in school, especially girls and those most at risk. National education systems are critical to providing the knowledge and skills that can save a generation from AIDS."
At the 2001 UN General Assembly Special Session on AIDS the governments of South Asia joined other world leaders in pledging that at least 90% of young people will have access to HIV prevention education by 2005. However, recent surveys show that that South Asia is far from achieving that goal.
Speaking on behalf of the young people Mr. Sudip Pokharel from Nepal said, "We young people assert our rights to participation in HIV/AIDS programme design and implementation. We commit ourselves to form our own organizations and networks that will work towards educating children, young people and even adults about our rights, especially our right to be protected from HIV/AIDS. We and our governments must work together to ensure monitoring and evaluation of the work done in involving children and young people."
Participants at the regional meeting are expected to adopt, "The Kathmandu Call Against HIV/AIDS in South Asia: accelerating actions and results', which will reiterate the commitment already made for the immediate implementation of a broader HIV/AIDS care and prevention and care agenda in the region. The Kathmandu Call reaffirms the goals of both the UN Special Session on HIV/AIDS and the Special Session on Children and calls for greater accountability and monitoring of results.
According to UNAIDS, at the end of 2001, 4.1 million people were already living with HIV/AIDS in South Asia. India, with 3.97 million people living with HIV, is second only to South Africa in the total number of people infected. "In countries that have clamped down on spiralling infection rates, the single factor that made the greatest difference remains visible and vocal leadership by individuals invested with public trust," Bellamy said. "In the face of the HIV/AIDS crisis, leadership means breaking through the silence surrounding the disease, and taking personal responsibility for driving the political and social process that builds a protective environment for the prevention, treatment and care of people living with, and affected by HIV/AIDS. It means holding yourself personally accountable for doing everything in your power to safeguard young people, who represent our collective future."
For more information contact:
Robert Tyabji, Regional Communication Adviser,(+977) 9810 40961 and Sudhamshu Dahal (+9771)417082.
Michael Hahn, Country Programme Adviser, Kathmandu Nepal, (+977)981025379.
Akhila Shivdas, (+91 11) 2629 2787 or 2622 9631.
You may also visit the UNAIDS website for more information about the programme (http://www.unaids.org).