Central Asia Hopes UN Meeting on HIV/AIDS Can Provide a Boost to Regional Prevention Efforts
Delegates from around the world begin a three-day meeting June 25 at United Nations headquarters to develop strategies aimed at containing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Central Asian leaders hope the meeting can boost regional prevention efforts. Experts warn of a looming HIV/AIDS epidemic in Central Asia, where governments lack resources to engage in comprehensive prevention and awareness activities.
The UN General Assembly's Special Session on HIV/AIDS is expected to take bold steps in coming to terms with the spread of the disease, which affects 36 million people worldwide, two thirds of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa. A Declaration of Commitment will outline priority areas where stronger action must be taken in both prevention and treatment. But some of the most contentious language in drafts of the declaration deals with identifying specific vulnerable population groups men who have sex with men, sex workers and their clients, and injecting drug users and their sexual partners. The latter category is the most serious concern for Central Asia.
"Dealing with drug abuse is a priority for our country because it is a major source for the spread of HIV," said Talgat Unaivaev, a Kyrgyz official who is coordinating the work of his country's delegation to the special session. "I think the issue of drug abuse will be a priority issue during the special session." He added that he believes the final declaration will adequately address drug abuse as a cause of HIV and AIDS.
The southern Osh region in Kyrgyzstan is experiencing a rapid rise in the number of confirmed HIV cases. During the last three months, 11 new HIV infections were reported, bringing to total number to 78, the Kabar news agency reported. Kyrgyz officials say they are virtually dependent on international aid to help prevent an HIV/AIDS epidemic, citing the fact that the state budget for AIDS prevention/awareness efforts is only 1.3 million soms, or roughly $26,500.
In Kazakhstan, health officials also express concern about a looming HIV/AIDS epidemic. According to the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency, Kazakhstan, a country of about 15 million, has 1,347 confirmed HIV cases, of whom 37 have already become ill with full-blown AIDS. In the last five months alone, 60 individuals in western Kazakhstan have contracted HIV. Most of the people infected are IV drug users, said Marat Boranbayev, a doctor who treats HIV/AIDS cases in western Kazakhstan.
In the various rounds of negotiations over the declaration leading up to the special session, delegates said differences in the text have been narrowed to the identification of vulnerable groups and to the list of specific methods of prevention that should be employed, including expanded access to condoms, disposable syringes and other harm reduction efforts related to drug use.
In his report to the special session in February, Secretary General Kofi Annan noted that "the Central Asian republics have until recently been little affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but recent data from some countries suggest that the spread of HIV has begun to spread among injecting drug users."
A major study of drug-related trends in the Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan released in December showed that intravenous narcotics use is growing, and that most users are afraid to seek treatment, fearing government retribution. The report commissioned by the International Harm Reduction Project of the Open Society Institute in New York concluded that the region is vulnerable to the rapid spread of infectious diseases, especially HIV/AIDS. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives].
At the special session, high-level national delegations will discuss what action plans have proven most effective in addressing the AIDS situation in their own countries, and what new measures are needed. Interactive round-tables will bring together government leaders, AIDS activists and experts and private sector partners to focus on key issues.
Dr. Peter Piot, the executive director of the United Nations program on HIV/AIDS, expressed hope that the final declaration can be translated into national policies in countries that have not yet developed their own policies to contain the disease. "In many countries groups have started discussing what their country's position is, and that often involves individuals and institutions that have never really thought about AIDS." In Central Asia, discussion about HIV/AIDS prevention efforts has stirred some controversy, as Islamic clerics and believers have voiced concerns that awareness programs could clash with traditional values. [For additional information see EurasiaNet's Culture archives].
The special session is also expected to set a number of concrete targets to fight HIV/AIDS globally, building on goals adopted at previous United Nations forums. These include the target agreed upon by some 150 heads of State and Government at the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000, to halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015.
In addition to the special session, Annan has proposed the creation of a Global AIDS Fund to coordinate the $7-10 billion annually that the UN says will be needed to tackle the AIDS issue effectively. The Fund has already received pledges of $200 million from the U.S. government, and $100 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Todd Diamond is a journalist who covers the United Nations.
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