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HIV/AIDS in Southeast Asia

Updated On: Dec 05, 2006

Every year on the 1st of December, the world remembers those suffering from HIV/ AIDS. This year, the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) reminded governments of their pledge to stop AIDS by 2015.

HIV/ AIDS is a serious problem in Southeast Asia. Data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNAIDS shows that Southeast Asia has the second-highest number of HIV-infected persons at 7.8 million, after Sub-Saharan Africa.

In Indonesia, the official figures show that 11,604 Indonesians have been infected with HIV/AIDS of which 1,651 have died. However, independent experts estimate that the real figure is somewhere between 169,000 and 250,000 people infected. AIDS activists are concerned at the rise of prevalence of the infection in the general population, beyond the high risk groups of sex workers and drug addicts. An Indonesian journalist, Ika Chandra explained the reason for the lack of concern inIndonesia on the problem of AIDS, saying, “People never consider HIV/AIDS as their problems since it is largely seen as a disease of “bad people”, like sex workers and junkies. Those who consider themselves to be good will not even consider the disease. So it is difficult to expect them to care about HIV/AIDS patients.” About 9,000 mothers with HIV give birth every year in Indonesia

As a sign of Indonesian government’s resolve to confront the problem, Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla openly urged Indonesians to use condoms and clean needles. Despite the likelihood of incurring wrath of conservative elements in Indonesian society, Kalla explained, “It must be understood by all, including religious leaders that this keeps the virus from spreading. I believe that it is less sinful than not using them because you don’t spread the virus to your spouse or children.”

In Malaysia, the official statistics showed that there have been a reported total of 73,427 HIV cases as of 30 June 2006. Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek warned that if more aggressive preventive and control measures against HIV/AIDS were not adopted, “this may wipe out all the development gains that we have achieved since independence.”  

Myanmar which has a high infection rate announced most recently “the successes of the government’s efforts” in addressing the problem of HIV, citing a fall in the HIV prevalence rate from 1.5% in 2000 to 1.3% in 2005. 40 million condoms were distributed in 2005, an increase from 11 million distributed in 1999. The government also announced that it would receive US$99.5 million in foreign aid to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, the three leading causes of death in Myanmar.

Even in “squeaky clean” Singapore, HIV / AIDS is on the rise.  The number of new HIV/AIDS cases is likely to hit a record high of 340 in 2006 compared to 317 new cases in 2005. There has been an average of 29 new cases nearly every month in 2006. Singapore has had 2,989 known AIDS cases since 1985 but some have estimated that the actual prevalence rate is about two to four times higher. To design better programmes to address the HIV problem in Singapore, the Health Promotion Board has also announced that it will be conducting its first national survey to find out about Singaporeans’ perception and awareness of sexually transmitted infections, including AIDS. The Singapore government is also looking into the possibility of having a voluntary HIV screening.

The problems faced by those fighting HIV / AIDS in Southeast Asia is the widespread misconception that only sex workers, drug addicts and gays run the risk of contracting AIDS.  The stigma therefore associated with HIV / AIDS in many conservative Southeast Asian societies is very high resulting in the problems being pushed to the background.  The lack of education and the taboo related to the subject have perhaps contributed to the trends that more teenagers and younger adults are succumbing to the infection.

Furthermore, today, with the discovery of anti-retroviral therapy (ARV) treatment programme, it is not so much AIDS patients dying from AIDS but that these patients are unable to gain acceptability in the wider society. While each of the individual ASEAN governments seems to be tackling the HIV issue individually, there does not seem to be a regional coordination mechanism.

Sources:

Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (http://www.unaids.org/en/)

Myanmar Junta Denies HIV on the Rise in the Country (Associated Press, 2 December 2006)

SE Asia Must Broaden Scope of HIV/AIDS Care (Jakarta Post, 3 December 2006)

Discrimination Dies Hard (Bangkok Post, 3 December 2006)

Disrespecting AIDS (Bangkok Post, 3 December 2006)

National Sex Survey Targets 10,000 S’poreans (Straits Times, 3 December 2006)

Panel Studies Idea of Routine HIV Tests (Straits Times, 3 December 2006)

People With HIV/AIDS Seek Recognition (Jakarta Post, 2 December 2006)

‘AIDS is Seen as a Disease of Bad People’ (Jakarta Post, 2 December 2006)

Breaking Efavirenz’s Patent Irks Merck (The Nation, 2 December 2006)

Time on Singapore’s Side- But ‘Not For Long’ (Straits Times, 2 December 2006)

Health Advocates Parade Giant Condom in Baguio (Manila Times, 1 December 2006)

Malaysia May Lose Gains to HIV Epidemic (New Straits Times, 1 December 2006)

Roundup: Myanmar Makes Efforts in Fighting Against AIDS, TB, Malaria (Xinhua, 30 November 2006)