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Nov 26, 2009 (DVB), The number of new HIV infections in Asia has decreased by 15 percent since 2001, although concerns remain for HIV/AIDS awareness in Burma where the disease is heavily stigmatized.
Figures released by the United Nations AIDS (UNAIDS) programme for 2008 show a global 30 percent drop in new HIV/AIDS cases since the disease peaked in 1996, although two million people died from AIDS worldwide last year.
In Asia the number of new HIV infections decreased from 400,000 in 2001 to 350,000 in 2008. Despite the upbeat statistics, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Burma, particularly among gay men and female sex workers, continues to cause alarm.
The latest UNAIDS statistics suggest that roughly one in three gay men and 18 percent of female sex workers in Burma are HIV positive. The problem is compounded by the government's meager spending on healthcare; 2.3 percent of the total GDP, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) figures for 2006.
Gupta Smith, from the WHO Southeast Asia Regional Office, told DVB today that while the disease "is leveling off in Myanmar [Burma], it remains very high in marginalised populations" such as gay men and injecting drug users.
The biggest "challenge for us is that the country does not have an open society," says Aung Myo Min, executive director of Human Rights and Education Institute of Burma (HREIB) and an activist for gay rights.
"Anybody found to be conducting homosexual activities can be charged under Article 377 [banning same-sex relations]. The law is not widely practiced but there is a lot of fear about that, so they practice unsafe sex without any information."
Deeply conservative social norms, combined with record low government healthcare expenditure and limited health-related education are driving the problem in Burma. The cocktail of problems raises fears that the global effectiveness in combating the disease may not be so prominent in the pariah Southeast Asian country.
"Talking about sex, is not an appropriate way to talk in public," said Aung Myo Min. "You cannot talk about condoms in public or in the media, so you cannot talk about safe sex in the media."
The UNAIDS report indicates that health spending and education have been effective combatants of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, where the disease is most rife.
Aung Myo Min contends however that healthcare is far down the queue of spending priorities for the military government in Burma.
"You can compare how much we spend on defense and the health sector; they use the country's budget for defense and they don't care about health," he said.
According to WHO statistics, Burma spent roughly $US43 per capita on healthcare in 2006, while it is estimated that more than 40 percent of the annual budget goes to the military.
This means that a Burmese national has one percent of the money a country such as Norway spends on healthcare each year. Compared to Burma, Norway allocates roughly four times more of its GDP to healthcare.
Reporting by Joseph Allchin