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Asian tsunami has raised AIDS risk - United Nations

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By Elaine Lies
KOBE, Japan, July 4 (Reuters) - The devastating tsunami that struck Asia last year has left several countries that were already vulnerable to AIDS at even greater risk of the deadly disease, United Nations officials said on Monday.

One in four new infections occurs in Asia, home to more than half the world's people, and 1,500 in the region die from the disease each day. Another 12 million could be infected over the next five years if prevention programmes are not stepped up.

Deadly waves caused by the Dec. 26 earthquake slammed into shores around the Indian Ocean, leaving 232,000 dead or missing and making millions homeless, many of them under conditions ripe for spreading HIV/AIDS.

"We're extremely concerned about the disaster and the increased risk of HIV and AIDS," said Jan Leno, from the UNAIDS secretariat, at a session of an international conference on AIDS in the Asia-Pacific held in the western Japanese city of Kobe.

She said that while HIV rates had not yet been seen to rise in any of the worst-hit regions, recent surveys had shown an increase in both pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

The United Nations estimates 8.2 million people are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in Asia, about 5.1 million of them in India. Worldwide, about 39 million people have HIV/AIDS, including 25 million in sub-Saharan Africa.

Officials and aid workers said the risk of AIDS in areas struck by the tsunami had increased due to the breakdown in basic services and health-care systems, which left many people without access to condoms.

A massive influx of military personnel and relief workers to the stricken areas as well as crowded, stressful living conditions that lead many men to seek out sex workers for relief have also raised the chance that HIV may spread.

"Our men all want sex. But how can I have sex when I have lost two children?" one woman in a tsunami-hit area of Sri Lanka told Kiran Bhatia, a U.N. regional adviser.

One aid worker said the areas in southern Thailand hit hardest by the tsunami had high levels of HIV/AIDS before the disaster, and funds earmarked for fighting the disease had been diverted to relief efforts.

J.V.R. Prasada Rao, director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team in Bangkok, said it was unfortunate but inevitable that many countries concentrated on short-term projects in a crisis.

"It is still difficult for all involved in relief efforts to see why such a long-term issue as AIDS must be dealt with immediately," he said in a statement.

"But there is increased understanding in those areas devastated by the tsunami that any relief effort must also include AIDS."

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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