Asia has made progress in containing HIV but must remove the stigma associated with the virus to fully consolidate the gains and keep it under control, international research chiefs say.
Speaking ahead of an international conference of 5,000 HIV/AIDS researchers in Sydney next week, America's top expert Anthony Fauci and his Australian counterpart David Cooper said HIV remained a major public health risk in Asia.
Fauci said predictions HIV would devastate Asia as it had Africa had proved false after local health authorities, which were initially slow to heed warnings, adopted pro-active policies.
But he said the potential for an epidemic still existed in a region estimated to have eight million people with HIV, a figure aid agency USAID says could climb to 40 million by 2010.
"The population density in Asia is so great, with countries like India and China that have a billion people each, that infection rates just have to track up a few percentage points and you're potentially looking at a catastrophe," Fauci told AFP.
Cooper, the co-chair of the International AIDS Society (IAS) conference, said responding to HIV was complicated by the fact that many suffers existed on the fringe of Asian society and faced discrimination.
"We're not going to have the generalised epidemics in our region that we've got in sub-Saharan Africa, we're going to have explosive smaller epidemics," he said.
"They tend to occur among drug users, also among gay men, sex workers or mobile workers such as truck drivers, fishermen who are more likely to pay for sex.
"In Asia, they're stigmatised and discriminated populations. The trick is to get into these vulnerable populations and provide non-judgemental healthcare."
Cooper cited China as an example of a country that had overcome its initial denial of an HIV problem but could go further if discrimination ended.
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