AIDS One of Greatest Challenges of Our Time, UNAIDS Chief Piot Tells ADB

MANILA, PHILIPPINES (21 February 2005) - HIV/AIDS poses one of the greatest challenges of our time, Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) Executive Director told ADB personnel and press at ADB Headquarters today.

He was speaking after signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two organizations to strengthen the AIDS response in Asia and the Pacific.

As part of the MOU, UNAIDS and the ADB will work together to engage political leaders and various sectors in the fight against AIDS, strengthen national capacity to scale up the AIDS response and generate additional funds for AIDS in the region.

Dr. Piot said in the less than 25 years since AIDS was first discovered, some 70 million people worldwide have become infected and the disease is now entering a new phase making it "truly an issue of our globalized world."

He said that besides the connectivity, that leaves no region untouched, another trend in the disease is the feminization of the epidemic, with more than 50% of those now becoming newly infected being women. There needs to be real momentum on three fronts, he said - leadership, financial commitment and what he called momentum of evidence.

"This is a problem with a solution," he said. "This is not a hopeless thing." He cited the case of Thailand, where in the early 1990s, 140,000 people were becoming infected every year compared to only 20,000 now.

However, AIDS continues to spread in the region with more than 1.2 million people newly infected last year alone, bringing the total number of people living with HIV in the Asia and Pacific region to 8.2 million. This makes it the region with the second largest number of people living with HIV after sub-Saharan Africa with 25.4 million.

"If Asia fails to act promptly, more adults will become infected by HIV in this region than in sub-Saharan Africa," ADB Vice-President Geert van der Linden said.

According to a joint UNAIDS/ADB report published last year, an additional 10 million people from Asia and the Pacific alone could be infected with HIV by the end of the decade if urgent action is not taken to scale up HIV prevention and care programs.

It could cost the region $17.5 billion annually, and millions would be thrown into poverty. Currently, the coverage rate for prevention and care services in the region is only 20%.

"Scaling up HIV prevention, care and treatment programs is essential to keeping people healthy and working towards achieving the Millennium Development Goal of reducing poverty by 50% by 2015," Mr. van der Linden added.

In 2004, national governments and donors spent US$200 million on AIDS in the region, compared to the $1.5 billion that was required. An estimated $5 billion is needed annually by 2007 to scale up prevention, care and treatment programs.

"As a leading financial institution in the region, the ADB is committed to closing the resource gap by providing eligible countries with grants to fight AIDS," said Mr. van der Linden.

ADB's shareholders have indicated their concern about the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the region and have decided to allocate 2% of total Asian Development Fund resources (or $140 million) as grants to fight HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases.

Further strengthening ADB's work on the AIDS issue, the Government of Sweden is also set to sign on Wednesday an agreement to establish a multidonor HIV/AIDS trust fund at ADB with an initial contribution of $14.3 million.

Sweden's HIV/AIDS Ambassador Lennarth Hjelmaker in a statement to ADB personnel and the press said that AIDS is top priority on the development agenda for his country along with sexual and reproductive health and rights.

"We need to work together," he said. "And this is a good example."

He said AIDS "is not only a medical problem,but covers all sectors of society."