WASHINGTON, Nov 30 (AFP) - The number of HIV infections in China, India and Russia is on the verge of exploding into a crisis that could lead to tens of millions of new cases and threaten the stability of the world economy, the head of the UN AIDS program said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the number of cases in other Asian countries, such as Indonesia, is growing quickly, and swift action is needed to stop the spread of AIDS across the continent, Peter Piot said at a conference on the AIDS epidemic in Washington. The conference was timed to coincide with Wednesday's observance of World AIDS Day.
"There is something new and ominous in the course of this epidemic," he said. "When the very act essential to furthering the human race also threatens it, then we are in a very dangerous place."
Piot called for intensified international efforts to fight AIDS in Asia and Eastern Europe, without harming efforts to stem the disease in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is already an epidemic.
"Early investment is everything. Either we pay now or pay later, and the price rises each minute we wait," Piot said.
The Chinese government estimates some 840,000 people were infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, in 2003, but international AIDS experts say the actual number is much higher.
The World Health Organization has predicted that number could grow to 10 million by 2010 without strong measures to address the epidemic.
Chinese officials for years denied AIDS was an issue and only started seriously addressing the problem in the past two years.
Even so, ignorance about AIDS remains rife in China, with sufferers routinely facing widespread discrimination by local police, health authorities and the public.
In a joint China-United Nations report released Tuesday, Chinese authorities vowed to intensify the fight against AIDS and to work harder on educating the public about the epidemic.
India, where an estimated 5.1 million people were infected with HIV in 2003, already has the world's second-highest number of cases after South Africa.
The UN report blames inadequate prevention efforts in both countries for allowing HIV infections to spread from high-risk groups such as drug users and sex workers to the general population.
Neighbors of both countries fear the problem will spread as it has from Russia into Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where the number of cases jumped from one million in 2000 to 1.4 million in 2004, according to a UN report released last week.
Pakistan is at a "make or break stage" in controlling the spread of the virus, said Nafis Sadiq, the UN envoy for AIDS in the Asia Pacific.
Prevalence so far is low, but worst case scenarios are closer than ever to being realized as the factors making it ripe for an epidemic start playing out: a large migrant population, four million workers travelling overseas annually for work, and half a million heroin users, of whom many share needles and use prostitutes.
Officially, only about 2,300 of Pakistan's 150 million people are HIV-positive, but the WHO estimates the actual figure at closer to 80,000.
Piot called on world leaders to mobilize greater resources and efforts to stem the spread of the disease through Asia and Eastern Europe, saying an expanding epidemic in those areas would devastate the world economy, threaten global security and drain resources needed to treat those already affected.
"It's entirely in our hands, but, alarmingly, there's not enough action," he said. "AIDS is the great moral challenge of our time and we are clearly at a crossroads of the global fight. The choices we make today will define generations to come."
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