London, July 24 (Reuters): India, China and Indonesia are the new battlegrounds in the fight against AIDS but have a unique chance to combat the disease by preparing early, an expert said on Thursday.
They may also, paradoxically, have been helped in the struggle by the grim example of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic, according to Dr Peter Piot.
“These three countries are highly vulnerable,” said Piot, the head of UNAIDS, which is spearheading the global battle against HIV/AIDS.
With more than 4 million people living with HIV/AIDS, India is already vying with, and may have surpassed, South Africa for the dubious distinction of having the highest number of sufferers in the world.
And the immense populations in China and Indonesia mean even a small jump in the percentage of infections could be disastrous.
But Piot is hoping that India’s first National Convention of the Parliamentary Forum on HIV/AIDS, on July 26-27, will be a blueprint for other Asian nations to follow so the continent does not suffer the same fate as sub-Saharan Africa.
“It is time for India to wake up and to act now because otherwise the price will be much, much higher,” Piot said in an interview.
The main aims of the meeting of 1,500 politicians from all parties and levels of government in the nation of 1 billion people are to allocate budgets to fight HIV/AIDS and enact legislation to remove the stigma it carries.
“Up to now...it has not been a cause that has been embraced by the elected representatives of the people from all parties,” Piot said. “That is important. Every single party is now participating -- it is extremely rare that all parties (in India) gather together around one theme with one agenda.”
Piot believes the real challenge in battling AIDS in India and other Asian countries is at the local level.
A particular problem in India is that although generic anti-AIDS drugs are produced in the country, they are not available for the people who need them.
Heterosexual transmission and intravenous drug injections are the main modes of HIV infection in the country. In some areas, up to 5 per cent of pregnant women are infected.
“That is getting to levels that are unprecedented in Asia and it reminds us of where some of the African countries were 15 years ago,” said Piot.
Most healthcare in India is provided by the private sector but many people rely on the public sector which is under-funded. “This will require some subsidies from the government and that is why this type of leadership meeting is so important,” he said.
Piot believes the human, political and economic costs of the SARS outbreak in Asia raised awareness of the importance of prevention. “What’s the incentive for political leaders to deal with something' It’s when it touches the economy, stability and security,” he said.