August 23, 2007

China cracking down on AIDS groups

Chinese authorities have cracked down on groups fighting HIV and AIDS, threatening activists, closing their offices and ordering that a conference be canceled, a human rights organization and activists said Tuesday. The government's actions raise questions about whether it is really committed to fighting HIV and AIDS, New York-based Human Rights Watch said.

"These individuals and groups dedicated to addressing the enormous suffering wrought by China's HIV/AIDS epidemic should not face police threats and harassment," Joe Amon, the group's HIV/AIDS director, said in a statement. The activists, Amon said, deserve "praise and support, not intimidation tactics by state security forces." The reported crackdown comes amid a general tightening of political control in China in the run-up to a major meeting of the ruling Communist Party. The meeting, expected in October, is held once every five years and sets the political tone and direction for the country.

Officials did not immediately comment. The Guangdong Public Security Bureau said it was not authorized to discuss the matter, referring questions to the Ministry of Public Security. The public security bureau in Kaifeng said it did not know about the case.

Zhu Zhaowu, who leads a branch of activist group Dong Zhen in Henan province, said officials went to his office last Wednesday and gave him two days to clear out.

Zhu said agents with the Kaifeng city Commerce and Industry Bureau said his group "is an illegal organization conducting illegal activities."

An officer also told Zhu to "watch your back after you move out, because Kaifeng can be unsafe," he said.

One of the group's activity centers in Ruanjia village was forced to close last Thursday, Zhu added. Dong Zhen provides legal aid to HIV and AIDS patients.

The organization had planned to co-host a conference Aug. 2-3 in southern China's Guangdong province with the New York-based Asia Catalyst group, said Dong Zhen director Li Dan. But the manager of the hotel where the conference was to be held said police contacted him and requested it be called off, Li said in a telephone interview.

"The Guangdong police didn't contact us directly, however," he said. Li refused to provide specifics, saying "I'm under a lot of other pressure."

The public security bureau in Guangdong had considered the conference's topics "too sensitive," Human Rights Watch said.

There are an estimated 650,000 people living with HIV in China, according to the most recent government statistics from 2005. HIV gained a foothold in the country largely due to unsanitary blood plasma-buying schemes and tainted blood transfusions.

The U.N. has praised China's work in combating HIV and AIDS, including top-level government commitment, proper funding, availability of antiretroviral drugs and outreach programs. However, the executive director of UNAIDS said last month that Beijing still must reach out to more patients in the vast country and overcome a lack of cooperation from some government officials.
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August 22, 2007

AIDS fight in Asia hurt by instability

Sri Lanka - Growing political instability, stigmatization of those infected and conservative social attitudes are hampering the fight against the spread of HIV in Asia, a top regional AIDS official said Monday. Nearly a half-million people in Asia and the Pacific are infected with HIV every year and as many as 300,000 of those infected die — more than the total killed in the 2004 tsunami, said Prasada Rao, UNAIDS regional director.

"The harsh reality is that the grim march of the epidemic in our region continues unabated," he told the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific. About 2,500 government officials, AIDS activists and health professionals from around the region gathered in Colombo for the five-day conference.

An estimated 5.4 million people in the region are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. While that number is far below the infection rate in Africa, Asia's huge population has led to concerns that an AIDS pandemic could erupt here as well if strong action is not taken.

While India and Thailand have been the focus of recent international efforts, Rao expressed fears that China, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh could be the next battlegrounds.

"These are large countries and they have the potential of an epidemic to take root, so they need a strong program," he said.

There has been some success, Rao said, pointing to a major campaign in India that help either stabilize or bring down the HIV-infection rate in the worst affected regions.

But there are also disturbing trends, including continued attacks by opponents of condom use and sex education, he said.

"There is no doubt anymore that condoms continue to be the only effective prevention tool available for protection against HIV, yet opposition to its promotion continues in many countries," he said.

In India, as many as 11 state governments have banned or are banning sex education in schools, and they are facing little opposition from civic groups, he said.

"It's baffling, really. Why should this happen?" he told The Associated Press.

A new wave of conflicts in the region is also hampering prevention and treatment efforts, he said. Two years ago, at the last regional AIDS conference, only Nepal was mired in significant conflict, he said. Now, eight more countries have fallen into political instability and conflict.

The war in Afghanistan has also indirectly contributed to the spread of the disease, he said. The increase in the cultivation of poppies used to make heroin has helped fuel intravenous drug use — the second leading cause of the spread of HIV in the region, he said.

Others also warned of potential pitfalls in the fight.

Nafis Sadik, special U.N. envoy on HIV/AIDS in Asia, said many issues of fear, stigmatization and ignorance are being ignored.

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Nutrition can't replace AIDS drugs, South African study finds

Good nutrition, while important for those on antiretroviral medication, does not prevent HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, a study by South African scientists said Wednesday. The Academy of Science of South Africa found "no evidence that healthier eating is any substitute for correctly-used medical drugs".

"The panel has concluded that no food, no component made from food, and no food supplement has been identified in any credible study as an effective alternative to appropriate medication," said lead researcher Barry Mendelow. South Africa's Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has often claimed that the use of garlic, lemon and other vegetables -- earning her the nickname Dr Beetroot -- could contain the epidemic.

"These delay the development of HIV to AIDS-defining conditions, and that's the truth," she told parliament last year.

Dan Ncayiyana, editor of the South African Medical Journal and one of the authors of the study, said: "One of our most important findings has been that nutrition is important for general health but is not sufficient to contain the HIV/AIDS or the turberculosis epidemic."

The report called for nutritional studies to be conducted in conditions found in most poor countries where much of the population is malnourished.

"The few randomised trials that exist have mainly been conducted in high-income countries where most patients are well nourished and have access to life-prolonging antiretroviral therapy," the report said.

The health ministry said the study "reaffirms" government's position in its effort to combat the disease.

"It reaffirms some of the policy positions (on HIV/AIDS) pushed by government and the department," health spokesman Sibani Mngadi told SABC radio.

"While we are facing challenges of two major infectious diseases, nutrition will assist you in promoting good health, (but) you need to get appropriate medication."

South Africa is one of the countries worst-hit by HIV with prevalence standing at 18.4 percent in 2006, and with 5.41 million people living with the illness.

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CRPF launches helpline for own HIV/AIDS victims

Hit with a rising number of HIV/AIDS cases among its personnel, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) Wednesday launched a toll free helpline to assist the victims and their relatives with timely information regarding AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. 'The helpline will make the life of the jawans and their families safer and will go a long way in reducing stress levels in the force,' said CRPF director general S.I.S. Ahmed.

'The unique combination of facilities on this helpline will make it popular and useful,' he added. According to data available with the ministry of home affairs, 200 paramilitary personnel have died of AIDS since 2004, including 27 this year.

Of the total number of victims, 75 died in 2004, 58 in 2005, 40 in 2006 and 27 in the first seven months of 2007.

While CRPF has lost 72 of its men during this period, 56 troopers from the Border Security Force (BSF) have lost their lives due to HIV/AIDS.

The helpline - jointly created by the CRPF's Wives' Welfare Association (CWWA) and Force AIDS Control Cell (FACC) - will also redress grievances of serving and retired personnel in this area.

The project has been launched with funds provided by Unaids.

'The project will have six fully trained tele-counsellors to run the helpline, besides an interactive voice response system. These counsellors will have updated information on HIV, AIDS and welfare schemes of CRPF,' said another top CRPF official.

'In the first phase the information on these issues will be available in English and Hindi,' the official added.

On Tuesday, minister of state for home affairs Sriprakash Jaiswal had informed parliament that a total of 1,363 men in the paramilitary forces are currently suffering from AIDS.

Of them, CRPF has 521, and Assam Rifles 458. BSF has reported 239 HIV/AIDS cases, CISF 105, Indo-Tibetan Border Police 25, National Security Guard six and Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) nine cases.

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Human trafficking helps spread HIV/AIDS in Asia

About 300,000 women and children are trafficked across Asia each year, accelerating the spread of HIV/AIDS, the United Nations said on Wednesday. "Trafficking ... contributes to the spread of HIV by significantly increasing the vulnerability of trafficked persons to infection," said Caitlin Wiesen-Antin, HIV/AIDS regional coordinator, Asia and Pacific, for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

"Both human trafficking and HIV greatly threaten human development and security."

Major human trafficking routes run between Nepal and India and between Thailand and neighbors like Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Many of the victims are young teenage girls who end up in prostitution. "The link between human trafficking and HIV/AIDS has only been identified fairly recently," Wiesen-Antin told the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific.

"Neither HIV/AIDS nor human trafficking have been integrated or mainstreamed adequately, either at policy or programmatic level."

UNAIDS estimates 5.4 million people were living with HIV in the Asia Pacific region in 2006, with anywhere between 140,000 and 610,000 people dying from AIDS-related illnesses.

That makes it the world's second largest number of people living with HIV after sub-Saharan Africa, where 25.8 million people are infected with the virus.

Conference host Sri Lanka has one of the lowest rates of HIV in Asia, with an estimated 5,000 infected people out of a population of around 20 million.

Neighboring India, by comparison, has the world's third highest HIV caseload after South Africa and Nigeria, with around 2.5 million people living with the virus.

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August 21, 2007

Drugs, conflict spur HIV in Asia Pacific region

HIV infections are increasing at a worrying 10 percent a year in the Asia Pacific region, a top UN AIDS official said on Tuesday, putting the rise down to intravenous drug use, sex workers and conflicts. Governments need to spend more money on prevention programmes and look at bypassing patents to produce affordable generic drugs to ensure prevalence rates remain low compared to Africa, said Prasada Rao, UNAIDS regional director for Asia and the Pacific.

"In the last two years we have seen about a million infections coming in, that means half a million every year," Rao told Reuters in an interview at the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific being hosted in Colombo. "Ten percent is a worrying figure."

"If you take out Southern India and Thailand and Cambodia, where you have a declining rate, in the remaining Asia Pacific region it is still an increasing epidemic," he added. "It is still accelerating."

UNAIDS estimates 5.4 million people were living with HIV in the Asia Pacific region in 2006, with anywhere between 140,000 and 610,000 people dying from AIDS-related illnesses.

That makes it the world's second largest number of people living with HIV after sub-Saharan Africa, where 25.8 million people are infected with the virus.

Part of the challenge is changing the mindset of policy makers who, though not complacent, are not targeting enough prevention measures at high risk groups, Rao said.

"It is an epidemic which is spreading through the injecting drug users, sexworkers ... who are criminalised sections of society," he said.

"When you explain the dynamic of the epidemic to politicians, they still think it is something that is not going to happen here and is only going to happen to bad people."

Areas of most acute concern to UNAIDS include Papua New Guinea because of poor health infrastructure and a high prevalence of rape, and Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Bangladesh, where intravenous drug use is high.

"In South Asia it is Pakistan and North India -- Pakistan because still the entire dimension of the epidemic is not well understood. Northern India's response is very slow and very disjointed," Rao said, adding some Indian states had even banned sex education.

India has between 2.0 million to 3.1 million people with HIV, with 85 percent of transmission occurring through sex workers. In China, 60 percent of infections are due to injecting drug use, he said.

Human trafficking for the sex industry is also a major problem.

"A lot of Nepali girls are brought to India. Another trafficking route has been Thailand and its neighbouring countries like Laos, Cambodia and even Myanmar," Rao said. "Many young girls are coming to brothels and massage parlours ... many just 13, 14 or 15 years old."

Nepal's AIDS programmes were suffering due to political instability there, just as conflict in Afghanistan is hindering access to treatment and prevention.

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Food supplements don't fight HIV

Neither food nor food supplements are alternatives to drug therapy in treating people with HIV/AIDS, South Africa's top scientific advisory panel has said, amid a controversy over the nation's AIDS policies. The report by the Academy of Science of South Africa was issued as President Thabo Mbeki faced new criticism over support for his health minister, who promotes nutritional treatment for AIDS, and the sacking of a deputy minister who backed drug treatments.

The inter-disciplinary scientific panel, which advises the government on health policies, began studying nutritional influences on the human immune system in October 2005, focusing on the virus that causes AIDS and on tuberculosis (TB).

"The panel has concluded that no food, no component made from food, and no food supplement has been identified in any credible study as an effective alternative to appropriate medication," said Prof Barry Mendelow, chairman of a 15-member panel from the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf).

Mendelow told Reuters the panel found while nutritional intervention is "a valuable supportive measure", the primary treatment is anti-retrovirals and anti-TB drug therapy.

"It's not a question of one or the other," he added.

South Africa has one of the world's highest HIV infection rate with an estimated 12 per cent of the country's 47 million population infected with the deadly virus.

Besides a struggling health-care system characterised by a lack of doctors and nurses, many of whom have left the country for better pay abroad, the fight against AIDS has been hampered by conflicting messages from senior government officials.

Mbeki sacked Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge this month for insubordination, sparking an outcry from AIDS activists who strongly backed her policies and critics who say she was fired for political reasons.

Madlala-Routledge had clashed with Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, dubbed "Dr Beetroot", who had horrified AIDS activists with her advocacy of garlic, lemon and African potatoes over conventional anti-retroviral drugs.

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