Delegates at the 14th International AIDS Conference, in Barcelona, Spain have been told that intravenous drug users are boosting the spread of HIV/AIDS in Central Asia, where the prevalence of the deadly disease remains low but the rate of spread is increasing alarmingly.
"In spite of the fact that CARs [Central Asian Republics] are now considered to be relatively low HIV prevalence countries, the rate of the spread of HIV is very high," Alexander Kossukhin, programme officer for the joint United Nations Programme for HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), told IRIN from Kazakhstan's principle city of Almaty on Tuesday.
The findings on Central Asia are part of the latest UNAIDS report released ahead of this week's conference. The report said the scale of the HIV/AIDS epidemic has outstripped even the worst-case scenarios of a decade ago. Dozens of countries are in the grip of serious HIV/AIDS epidemics, and many more are on the brink.
The report contains country-by-country estimates on a number of indicators that help to understand the magnitude of the HIV/ AIDS epidemic, as well as the response at local, national, and global levels.
Kossukhin said in the year 2001 the number of documented HIV cases in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan increased three fold in comparison with the year 2000. Africa bears the greatest share of infections but experts fear Asia could soon overtake it as the continent hardest hit by the disease.
"Recent epidemiological surveillance had showed that the prevalence of HIV amongst the injecting drug users in Kazakhstan varies from one to eight per cent in different cities. So Kazakhstan has passed the initial stage of the development of the HIV epidemic," he noted.
The estimated total number of injecting drug users in Kazakhstan is 250,000. Most of them continue sharing needles and having unprotected sex, studies indicate. Experts say the situation is serious because as well as drug users, there is a well-developed underground market for commercial sex in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and that prostitutes and their clients tend not to practice safe sex.
All the evidence shows that where there are high rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)HIV/AIDS follows. Central Asian countries are showing rapid increases in the prevelance of STDs.
The UNAIDS report pointed out that the epidemic was growing in Kazakhstan. "Swift spread of HIV is now also evident in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan," it added.
Unofficial estimates suggest that the number of people living with the deadly virus in the five Central Asian countries was about 35,000, with 20,000 of them in Kazakhstan alone. According to the UNAIDS report, about one percent of the population of the region was injecting drugs, and many of them were spreading the disease through unprotected sex.
There's also a massive problem of education in the Central asian region. "In some Central Asian republics, as of 2001, awareness of HIV/AIDS was still dismal among vulnerable groups, such as adolescent girls - a mere ten percent of whom in Tajikistan had ever heard of HIV/AIDS," the report said. "In 2001, in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, fewer than 60 percent were aware of the disease," it added.
UNAIDS has warned that up to 68 million people would become victims of AIDS in the next two decades unless the developed countries dramatically increased their role in the global fight against the disease.
But Central Asia can learn the lessons from other middle-income nations that have worked hard to stem the epidemic. Kossukhin said prevalence remained low in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovenia because authorities had successfully partnered civil society to fight the disease together.
"Governmental sectors strongly coordinate their activities with civil society. The capacities of non-governmental organisations [NGOs] to give a correct response to HIV have been trained. Education, information and communications are extensively delivered," he explained.
More than 20 million people have died of AIDS around the world since the clinical discovery of the disease in 1981.
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