For the first time since the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) was founded more than half a century ago, a health and development issue is the theme topic for the Commission's annual session.
Why should UNESCAP be so concerned about the HIV/AIDS pandemic? The answer is simple this disease is no ordinary pandemic. Two decades ago, when it was first discovered. HIV/AIDS was a mysterious, little known disease. Today, it is a rampant menace to all of humankind. Yet, to discuss how it is transmitted and how we should respond is to touch on issues that we find difficult to discuss in public--issues of sex, drugs and deep-rooted prejudices about personal behaviour.
We cannot afford to remain politely silent while the virus rolls on in its destructive course. The spectre of HIV/AIDS already casts a dark shadow over Asia and the Pacific. HIV/AIDS threatens not just the lives of our people; it is a threat to their way of life. Its tentacles threaten to unravel all our achievements of the past fifty years. Left unchecked, it could stall our future progress.
Asia and the Pacific has the largest population base of any region in the world. Even a low prevalence rate translates into massive numbers of infections. Moreover, despite the increased number of the aged in some societies, it is still a region made up predominantly of the young. Over 50 per cent of the newly infected worldwide are young people. This means 620 million young lives in the region are especially vulnerable to the disease. We have a responsibility to protect them. So where do we begin in the search for solutions? What should we do to minimize the impact of HIV/AIDS, to halt and reverse its spread? The tasks ahead of us may be daunting, but our societies are not powerless against the pandemic. We need, first of all, to acknowledge that this disease is a development challenge. It is not merely a medical health issue. It is no coincidence that globally some 95 per cent of people living with HIV/AIDS are in developing countries. Income inequality, malnutrition, illiteracy and gender imbalance directly contribute to the spread of the virus and its impact on the lives of the poor.
To tackle HIV/AIDS as a development challenge, we must draw on our region's rich experience in combining social and economic policies to improve the lives of our peoples. We must incorporate HIV-concerns into poverty reduction strategies. To stem the tide of the pandemic, we need political commitment and will at the highest level of government.
We need comprehensive, strategic and expanded responses on HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, care and support, and we need to ensure that adequate resources are available to support this response. There is a need above all, for urgent action. We at UNESCAP believe that the leadership of Prime Ministers and Presidents in direct national action can turn the tide. Thailand and Cambodia, among others, are examples of countries in our region that have shown such leadership in their response to HIV/AIDS.
The response to the pandemic also has to be multisectoral, combining the efforts of Government and civil society, including the private sector. Governments need to integrate HIV/AIDS concerns into national development planning, sectoral plans and poverty reduction strategies. They also need to pay more attention to health, nutrition, education, gender equality and social justice. All levels of government must be mobilized.
Unfortunately, in many parts of our region, we shroud in silence and denial issues of sexuality, drug use and unequal power relations, which are central to action on HIV/AIDS. To seriously tackle the pandemic in Asia and the Pacific, we must address the factors that determine its course. The very taboo nature and the illegality of sex work, use of sex worker services, same sex relations and drug use foster the spread of the virus. …