October 7, 2002
"The epidemic in Asia threatens to become the largest in the world," said Dr Peter Piot, Executive Director of UNAIDS. "With more than half the world's population, the region must treat AIDS as an issue of regional urgency. The question is no longer whether Asia will have a major epidemic, but rather how massive it will be."
"HIV has already spread to more than six million people across Asia," Dr Piot said. "By not tackling it now while it is still manageable, the epidemic will have far-reaching effects, destabilizing societies and damaging productivity." Dr Piot was speaking at the World Economic Forum's (WEF) East Asia Economic Summit, which he Co-Chairs -- one of the first times someone from outside the business sector has been invited to chair the summit.
Keeping AIDS from reaching massive proportions is a major challenge for Asia, Dr Piot warned, adding that early action would not only save lives, but money.
"Experience has shown us that valuable time is lost when interventions are delayed," he said. "As soon as the epidemic spreads beyond localised areas and particular population groups, the costs of both prevention and care begin to escalate rapidly.
"Business can play a key role in stopping the spread of AIDS, according to UNAIDS. They can protect employees from HIV through workplace education, the development of non-discriminatory policies, and the provision of care for infected workers in countries where health infrastructure is lacking.
"It is a question of good economic sense," Dr Piot said. "By protecting their employees from HIV and caring for those who are infected, businesses minimize the loss of skilled workers and managers, and boost their long-term productivity."
"Governments cannot go it alone, and businesses can play a pivotal role in the response in Asia. Taking action on AIDS goes beyond a matter of corporate responsibility -- it is about making a good investment now to save paying vast costs later," he added.
A document package* released at the Summit outlines examples and options for businesses committed to working on AIDS and shows that providing treatment and care to employees is often cheaper than the overall cost of AIDS to businesses.
Key to supporting workers is protecting them from discrimination, Dr Piot said. Protecting rights is essential to fighting the fear and denial that surround HIV/AIDS.
Despite high incidence, there are signs of success. Cambodia, for example, has started to bring its epidemic under control. Yet in most cases the epidemic continues to spread and AIDS in Asia is only beginning. Behind low national prevalence rates in several countries are serious localized epidemics.
China, with a fifth of the world's population, registered a more than 67% rise in reported HIV infections in the first six months of 2001. HIV epidemics are occurring among injecting drug users in at least seven provinces, with prevalence rates as high as 70% in this group.
Across Asia, an estimated 6.6 million people were living with HIV/AIDS at the end of 2001, including the one million adults and children who were newly infected during the year. In China it is estimated that the total number of people infected with HIV has already reached one million, while in India, an estimated 3.97 million people are living with HIV/AIDS.
For more information, please contact Anne Winter, UNAIDS, Geneva, (+41 22) 791 4577, Dominique De Santis, UNAIDS, Geneva, (+41 22) 791 4509, Tony Lisle, UNAIDS, Kuala Lumpur, mobile (+66 1) 928 0949, or Andrew Shih, UNAIDS, New York, (+1 212) 584 5024. You may also visit the UNAIDS website for more information about the programme. (www.unaids.org).
* The document package, prepared by WEF, the Asian Business Coalition on AIDS, the International Labour Organization and UNAIDS, is available on www.unaids.org/partnership/index.html.