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Girls, Women Trafficked in Asia for Commercial Sex Work Emerging as HIV/AIDS Risk Factor
Medical News Today
August 28, 2007

Young women and girls in Asia who are trafficked for commercial sex work are emerging as an HIV/AIDS risk factor, according to a report released by the United Nations Wednesday at the 8th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, the AP/ reports (Nessman, AP/, 8/22). The conference brings together more than 2,500 delegates from Asian countries to discuss fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS, as well as providing treatment and support to people living with the disease. An estimated 8.6 million people living in the Asia-Pacific region are HIV-positive (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 8/23).

The report, titled "Human Trafficking and HIV," focused on the estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people from South Asia trafficked and forced into labor annually, usually as sex workers. According to the AP/, the number represents only 50% of the people who are trafficked in all of Asia. The report examined the intersection between HIV and trafficking in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the AP/ reports.

Although there are few reliable statistics about HIV among trafficked people, one study estimated that 25% of trafficked women in Mumbai, India, are HIV-positive, Caitlin Wiesen-Antin, United Nations Development Programme regional HIV/AIDS coordinator in Asia and the Pacific, said. She added that another study found 60% to 70% of 218 trafficked sex workers from Nepal who were later rescued in Mumbai were HIV-positive. According to Wiesen-Antin, the increase in the number of infrastructure projects across the region, as well as the sex work that accompanies project workers, has the potential to further spread HIV across the Asia-Pacific.

The report recommended that governments work to merge their anti-trafficking and HIV prevention efforts. It also called for a renewed focus on issues that make women more vulnerable to both trafficking and HIV transmission, including gender inequality, violence, poverty and a lack of education (AP/, 8/22).

"Both human trafficking and HIV greatly threaten human development and security," Wiesen-Antin said, adding, "Neither HIV/AIDS nor human trafficking have been integrated or mainstreamed adequately, either at policy or programmatic levels" (Sirilal, Reuters, 8/22). Wiesen-Antin said that it is "absolutely critical that we take action now" (AP/, 8/22).

Conflict, Stigma Hindering Fight Against HIV/AIDS in Region, UNAIDS Official Says
Increasing conflict, stigmatization of HIV-positive people and conservative social attitudes are hindering efforts to fight the virus in the region, Prasada Rao, UNAIDS Asia-Pacific regional director, said at the conference. "The harsh reality is that the grim march of the epidemic in our region continues unabated," Rao said.

According to Rao, recent international HIV/AIDS efforts have focused on India and Thailand, but Bangladesh, China, Indonesia and Pakistan could be the next front lines in the fight against the disease. "These are large countries, and they have the potential of an epidemic to take root, so they need a strong program," he said. Rao added that although there have been some successes in the region, there also are alarming trends, such as efforts from people who oppose condom use and sex education. In addition, increasing conflict in the Asia-Pacific region is hindering HIV prevention and treatment efforts, according to Rao. During the last regional conference two years ago, Nepal was the only Asia-Pacific country experiencing significant conflict, Rao said. He added that eight additional countries currently are experiencing political instability and conflict (Nessman, AP/Guardian, 8/22).

Compulsory Licensing
Rao at the conference also praised Thailand's decision to issue compulsory licenses for two antiretroviral drugs. "Thailand has made a strong statement by invoking a compulsory license for the production of second-line antiretroviral drugs," Rao said. He added, "I urge countries in Asia and the Pacific region to use" World Trade Organization "flexibilities to do more and show more commitment to AIDS responses" (Sathitphattarakul/Treerutkuarkul, Bangkok Post, 8/23).

Colombo Declaration
Representatives at the close of the ICAAP conference on Thursday signed and released the Colombo Declaration, Xinhua/People's Daily reports. The declaration said that countries in the Asia-Pacific have a mix of low and high HIV/AIDS prevalences, adding that countries with low prevalences should work to maintain their statuses by:

  • Addressing the disease as a development issue;

  • Employing community-based organizations and residents living with HIV/AIDS to campaign against the disease; and

  • Implementing specific strategies for prevention.

Countries also should promote voluntary HIV testing and counseling and provide universal access to antiretroviral treatment, according to the declaration. The document also calls on governments and policymakers to address poverty, gender inequality, social marginalization of vulnerable populations and stigmatization, Xinhua/People's Daily reports.

Conference participants said governments should recognize the rights of women, adding that countries should work to strengthen sexual and reproductive education and reduce mother-to-child HIV transmissions, child marriage and gender violence (Xinhua/People's Daily, 8/23).

Samlee Plianbanchang, WHO's Southeast Asia regional director, said, "In the Asia-Pacific region, we are at high risk of a massive spread of HIV," adding, "This is not only due to the large size of the population and the high burden of sexually transmitted infections, but also due to the prevailing risk behaviors and vulnerabilities as well as inherent social stigma." Experts at the close of the conference said that safeguarding the rights of vulnerable groups -- including sex workers, injection drug users, and trafficked women and children -- is vital and should be done in conjunction with prevention efforts. Conference Chair A.H. Sheriffdeen said, "Governments should recognize rights and listen to the voice of women," adding, "They ... should stop treating drug use as a criminal offence and treat it as [a] public health issue" (Sirilal, Reuters, 8/23).

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