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The Seventh International Conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP), which opened in Kobe on Friday, comes at a time when the HIV/AIDS epidemic is spreading rapidly from Africa to Asia. The message is loud and clear: Without stepped-up efforts to combat the crisis, it could reach serious proportions comparable to that of Africa.

Attending the five-day meeting are about 3,000 people, including researchers, people infected with HIV and AIDS patients, members of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and officials from administrative agencies. The main purpose of the forum is to share knowledge and experiences regarding treatment and prevention methods.

“Asia and the Pacific are now home to a rapidly expanding HIV and AIDS epidemic,” Peter Piot, executive director of the Joint U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), said. “Last year a total of 8.2 million people in Asia were HIV positive.”

A similar warning came from Mr. Tadamitsu Kishimoto, chairman of the Seventh ICAAP and a special adviser to the Council for Science and Technology at the Cabinet Office. “The AIDS issue is not restricted to Africa,” he pointed out. “It is becoming an issue of greater seriousness in Asia.”

It is significant that the international AIDS conference is being held in Japan, the only major industrialized country to register an increase in the number of HIV-positive people. Public awareness of the AIDS issue remains low, due partly to the social stigma attached to the disease. It is time to mount a grass-roots campaign to confront this growing health crisis.

According to UNAIDS, as of the end of 2004, the total number of HIV-infected people and AIDS patients in the world stood at 39.4 million. Last year alone, 4.9 million people contracted the HIV virus, and 3.1 million died of AIDS. Women represented 47 percent of those infected, reflecting to a large degree their generally low status in some societies, which makes it difficult for them to get information about HIV infection.

The most affected region of the world is sub-Saharan Africa, where the total number of people living with HIV, plus AIDS patients, was estimated at 25.4 million, accounting for 64 percent and 76 percent, respectively, of HIV-positive people and HIV-positive women worldwide.

The numbers are alarming. More effective action is urgently needed to stem the tide, as nations in Africa and Asia, in particular, continue to lose chunks of their labor force to the debilitating disease. AIDS is not just a health problem; it poses a broader challenge in terms of national security.

In Asia, the number of people with HIV was estimated at 8.2 million, up 1 million from the end of 2002. Among the countries that had recorded large increases in the number of infected people are China, Vietnam and India. According to one estimate, the number in China is expected to rise from 1 million in 2002 to 10 million in 2012. As a neighboring country, Japan cannot remain unconcerned.

The Kobe meeting, unlike academic conferences attended only by researchers, includes delegates from NGOs and nonprofit organizations that support AIDS patients, as well as infected people. It features a wide range of programs including plenary sessions attended by experts, workshops on 19 specific subjects, strategies for propagating anti-HIV treatments, community-based measures to deal with HIV, and youth forums for those in their teens and 20s.

All these programs are designed to exchange information and experience and to encourage joint efforts for prevention, care and treatment. They should help Japan a great deal in mapping out its own measures.

In Japan, the total number of new infections and patients exceeded 1,000 for the first time in 2004, bringing the cumulative total to more than 10,000. Of the infections that occurred last year, 60 percent were the result of homosexual contact and 26 percent occurred through heterosexual contact. The majority of infections and patients were in Tokyo and its surrounding suburbs. The pandemic was spreading in the Kinki and Tokai regions as well.

According to experts, misconceptions about HIV and AIDS — such as that “heterosexuals don’t get infected” and that “having a steady lover is safe” — are largely responsible for the spread of infections. This points up the need to promote public education about the pandemic.

Dec. 1 this year has been declared World AIDS Day. The campaign theme, which aims to raise the level of public awareness, gives an appropriate admonition: Don’t think that you have nothing to do with AIDS. It is advice that people should consider in all seriousness.

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