BANGKOK, Nov. 22 (Xinhua) -- The 11th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP11) concluded on Friday, with consensus reached that the Asia-Pacific region needs renewed and beefed-up commitment to AIDS response.
"Asia right now is almost in a transitional period, and it requires much more focused interventions, programming and commitments to get to zero," said Steve Kraus, director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific.
The ICAAP11, with the theme of "Asia/Pacific Reaching Triple Zero: Investing in Innovation", opened on Tuesday and attracted around 3,900 delegates from 80 countries worldwide.
"Triple zero" refers to UNAIDS' vision of achieving zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths. "We all need to be stepping up the pace on universal access to treatment, reducing stigma and discrimination and the path to a cure and a vaccine," said Sharon Lewin, professor and head of the Department of Infectious Diseases of Monash University in Australia.
Every single person who needs treatment, care and prevention needs to get it sooner than later, said Prof. Lewin, who is also local co-chair of the 20th International AIDS Conference scheduled to be held in Melbourne, Australia in July 2014.
PARTNER WITH COMMUNITIES
Latest figures from the UNAIDS show in 2012, the region saw 26 percent fewer new HIV infections overall since 2001, with new infections reduced by more than 50 percent in some countries. But grave challenges remain, Kraus noted. "We still have 350,000 new infections taking place every year, and we have about 270,000 people dying every year from AIDS-related causes."
To address these issues, the key innovation lies in building a stronger, more genuine and more trusting partnership with civil society, Kraus suggested. Communities know how to reach key populations at higher risk, including sex workers, transgender people, drug users and men who have sex with men, he said.
A collection of UN entities, civil society networks and donors in Asia and the Pacific released a joint statement during the ICAAP11, urging a rapid increase of voluntary confidential community-based HIV testing and counseling for key populations. "Ensuring key populations at higher risk have access to testing, prevention, care and treatment services is fundamental to progress on HIV in Asia and the Pacific," the statement said. Remarkable things happen when the government collaborates with communities, because it is a win-win strategy, Kraus said. "It's a win for the government, for civil society and for the epidemic getting to zero, " he said.
PROMOTE LEGAL REFORM
Legal reform is crucial to the AIDS response, President of Fiji Ratu Epeli Nailatikau said at the AIDS congress. "Punitive laws fuel stigma and discrimination, undermining our efforts to bring an end to AIDS," he said.
In 2010, Fiji passed a law decriminalizing sex between men, making it the first Pacific Island nation with colonial-era sodomy laws to do so. In 2011, it also lifted HIV-related restrictions on entry, stay and residence. The benefits of these legal changes have already "materialized," with improved access to services for those populations most at risk of HIV, the president said.
Over recent years, similar legal and policy initiatives have been taken in Asia and the Pacific.
China and Mongolia also lifted travel ban for people living with HIV, and Nepal recognized "third gender" in the national census. "Some of the best practices in the world are here in Asia and the Pacific," Steve Kraus said.
But significant legal and policy barriers still remain, impeding the AIDS response in the region, a UNAIDS regional report released during the congress said.
Some 37 countries in the region criminalize some aspects of sex work while 18 criminalize same sex behavior, the report said. " AIDS is a society problem. It is a development problem. It has to be handled from the top (government)," said Mechai Viravaidya, president of Thailand's Population and Community Development Association. Mechai is better known as Mr. Condom for decades of perseverance in promoting safe sex.
"Our work is not done," the president of Fiji said.