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PAKISTAN: First Asia-Pacific Conference on HIV/AIDS and women

ISLAMABAD, 29 Nov 2004 (IRIN) - Pakistan began hosting a three-day conference on Monday addressing the impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls in the Asia Pacific region. The National AIDS Control Programme (NACP), the health ministry and Amal Human Development Network (AHDN) - an NGO working on HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness - have jointly organised the event with other development partners including UN agencies.

"Currently global statistics reflect the increased feminisation of AIDS, with more than half of those infected with HIV being women and girls. It's important that we recognise the issues posed by this fact and policies and programmes must situate themselves in the context of the realities that face women and girls today," Emrys Schoemaker, communications officer at AHDN, told IRIN in the capital, Islamabad.

The conference aims to bring together eminent national and regional speakers, leading researchers and clinicians, programme managers and participants from across Asia-Pacific and around the world to share their HIV/AIDS experiences and best practices related to women and girls.

Around 300 delegates from different countries, including Nepal, India, Iran, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Mongolia, China, Bangladesh, and Cambodia are participating in conference. "Women are more physically susceptible to HIV infection than men and male-to-female transmission during sex is about twice as likely to occur as female-to-male," Schoemaker said. While some nations in the vast Asia-Pacific region have comparatively low rates of HIV prevalence, there is great potential for an explosion of HIV along the lines of the African pandemic, AIDS activists predict.

According to AIDS Epidemic update 2004, the annual report by the joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of women living with HIV/AIDS has risen in each region of the world over the past two years, with the steepest increase - 56 percent - in East Asia.

In East Asia, the increase in HIV infections from 2002-2004 is largely attributable to growing epidemics in China, Indonesia and Vietnam, the update said.

"Despite all the difficulties, we believe in taking bold steps towards prevention of what may become a catastrophe of similar proportions as that of South Africa," Muhammad Nasir Khan, Pakistan's health minister said on Thursday in a press briefing ahead of the conference.

Khan further said that the government's commitment was obvious from the fact that 85 percent of total spending on prevention and control of HIV/AIDS in Pakistan was through the national budget.

Although the topic of the spread of HIV/AIDS through sexual relations remains taboo in many countries in the region, change is coming, activists hope.

"Advocacy for the cause has been undertaken not only at the highest political level but religious and traditional leaders have also been sensitised," Dr Asma Bukhari, head of Pakistan's AIDS control programme (NACP), said at the briefing, adding that greater involvement of such leaders would be key to success in preventing the onset of a pandemic.

The number of people living with HIV globally has reached an estimated 39.4 million people, up from an estimated 36.6 million in 2002, the UNAIDS/WHO report said.

The above article comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004

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