Children ‘most at threat’ from HIV/AIDS

Southeast Asia has seen a 46 percent rise in rates of HIV infection among children in the past eight years, while in Burma the disease remains a “serious health concern”, a new report claims.

The study was released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) today to mark World AIDS Day 2010, but the findings prove sobering: around 220,000 people across the region have contracted HIV in the past year, with issues of healthcare access and stigmatisation two of the main obstacles to eradication.

“Regionally, women constitute 37 percent of the 3.5 million people living with HIV/AIDS, and without any intervention, about a third of infants born to HIV-positive mothers could acquire HIV,” the report said.

The worst-affected regional countries, according to WHO, are India, Indonesia, Burma, Nepal and Thailand. Also included in the report were Bangladesh, Bhutan, North Korea, Maldives, Sri Lanka and East Timor.

It said also that “only one in three HIV-positive women currently access prophylactic anti-retroviral treatment (ART) in Southeast Asia”.

In Burma, however, 65 percent of HIV-infected mothers are accessing the WHO’s Prevention of Mother to Child transmission of HIV (PMTCT) programme, the organisation said, estimating that overall, 18 percent of total carriers in Burma were receiving antiretroviral treatment by the end of 2009.

But activities to mark World AIDS Day failed to materialise in Burma, given the junta’s decision to postpone it until tomorrow so it could focus on the annual National Day.

The issue of the military’s treatment of HIV/AIDS sufferers was pushed into the spotlight last month after government officials ordered the eviction of up to 100 patients from a Rangoon care home.

That the order was given a day after a visit by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi gave the International AIDS Society (IAS) reason to suspect the move was “political”. Last week however the junta did a U-turn and said the patients could stay on.

Phyu Phyu Thin, the owner of the care home and a colleague of Suu Kyi’s at the National League for Democracy (NLD), said that the Nobel laureate was also due to visit for the ceremony tomorrow.

A patient there said that conditions in the care home were good compared to those of government-run and Thazin clinics, operated by the Netherlands branch of Médecins Sans Frontières.

“The situation would be so much better if hospitals and Thazin clinics would welcome and treat us warmly” she said. “There have been so many times that we went to the Thazin clinics and we had to wait ages to get checked up and medication.”

The disease remains heavily stigmatised in Burma, where education on the issue is poor and access to healthcare limited. Only around 0.5 percent of the government budget each year is spent on healthcare.

According to UNAIDS figures, the numbers of adults between 15 and 49 carrying the disease rose from 0.2 percent of the population in 1990 to 0.6 last year, although it has seen a decrease from 2001 when it peaked at 0.8 percent.

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