The 11th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP11) was held in Bangkok this week. Experts and activists gathered in the Thai capital to discuss the current infection and treatment situation in the region, and to explore new ways of preventing and treating the disease, as well as raising awareness.

The goal of this year’s conference, according to the official site, was to create a “‘game change’ impact” plan that will raise public awareness of the disease. This is vital, as an educated population is less likely to engage in dangerous sexual practices and drug use that will cause the disease to spread. Additionally, public awareness may foster a greater sense of empathy and compassion in countries where the stigma attached to having HIV/AIDS prevents people from seeking treatment or causes them to be shamed or ostracized.

Safe sex activists at ICAAP11

Safe sex activists took to the streets of Bangkok during the ICAAP11 conference this week. (Photo: ICAAP11)

Among the topics discussed was the need for early detection and treatment among populations at high risk for infection, such as men who have sex with men. Craig Knowles, a spokesperson for ICAAP11, noted that according to UNAIDS, “Not enough people from key populations at higher risk know their HIV status. This is hampering increased access to treatment. In the region, only 8% of the overall spending on AIDS is for prevention for populations at highest risk.”

In much of Asia, HIV transmission rates are highest among sex workers, men who have sex with other men, intravenous drug users, and members of the transgender community. amFAR reported that infection rates have decreased in Thailand, Cambodia, India, Malaysia, Burma, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, but have spiked in Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

“Almost 30 years on from the first cases of HIV/AIDS, we are seeing alarming new levels of infection in some Asian countries among young [men who have sex with men],” Knowles said via email. “In Bangkok, the level is more than 30 percent. This is unacceptable and needs to be urgently addressed.”

Knowles pointed out that general discrimination against these high-risk groups makes the need for change even more urgent.

“It’s estimated that more than 30 countries in this region still have laws that criminalize behaviour among these groups,” he said.

Another vital discussion at the congress centered around the issue of co-infections, referring to those who have not only HIV/AIDS but another life-threatening disease as well, such as tuberculosis (TB) or hepatitis C (HCV). According to a newsletter  issued for each day of the conference, “In Asia and the Pacific, the majority of the countries are estimated to have more than 50% HCV prevalence among [people who inject drugs]. This includes countries such as Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, [Burma], Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam, among others.”

Conference organizers maintained a strong social media presence throughout the event, and retweeted comments about the need for open discussion about sexual pleasure and sexual health in order to have a serious conversation about prevention.

Another salient point was made by a user who noted that many parents are uncomfortable talking about sex and gender with their children even in the context of an HIV conference. Early education is essential for children to grow up with healthy perspectives on sex, and the proper information to protect themselves when they become sexually active.

In August of this year, amFAR reported that nearly 5 million people in the Asia-Pacific region are living with HIV/AIDS. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) released a statement earlier this week emphasizing the importance of getting to a point where no children in the region are born with HIV, and where those already infected have access to the most effective drugs available.

According to that organization, 350,000 people in the Asia-Pacific region were newly infected with HIV in 2012. Disturbingly, more than 6 percent of those were children under 14 years of age, and 17 percent were between 10 and 19 years old. It is clear why education and treatment are vital, especially for the young who might live fulfilling, relatively comfortable lives given the proper medical resources.

Knowles emphasized that in addition to education and prevention, funding is essential to combating HIV/AIDS in this part of the world.

“At a time when international funding is shrinking, national governments need to step up and fill the shortfall. Asia-Pacific governments have the means to do this, so there is no excuse,” he said.