Researchers fear explosion of AIDS deaths in Asia, with millions infected

November 08, 1992|By New York Times News Service

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Acquired immune deficienc syndrome came relatively late to most of Asia, but it is now spreading so rapidly and so randomly that scientists are convinced AIDS will kill more people on this continent than on any other.

Conservative estimates suggest that by 2000, the AIDS virus will be infecting more than 1 million Asians each year, more than in the rest of the world combined.

Some researchers fear that the infection rate in Asia will be closer to 3 million or 4 million a year, and that tens of millions of Asians will become infected and die of AIDS over the next two decades. Reliable projections show that within eight years, at least 10 million Asians will be infected by the virus that causes the disease.

It is a plague, they say, that threatens some of Asia's miracle economies and could condemn other, less fortunate Asian nations to another generation of grinding poverty, as their governments struggle to care for the millions of people who are destined to become ill and die.

The World Health Organization warned in a report this year that human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, may be spreading in some Asian nations at a percentage rate close to that found in the early 1980s across sub-Saharan Africa.

In the worst-hit nations of Africa, one-quarter to one-third of all adults in urban areas are thought to be infected with the AIDS virus. Researchers say that while the percentage of Asians afflicted with AIDS will never reach levels that large -- even in India and Thailand, where the crisis is most severe -- the AIDS death toll will be far higher in Asia, given the continent's total population of about 3 billion people, compared with 700 million in Africa.

The disease has begun to reach even the most remote corners of Asia. It can now be found in tiny Nepalese villages nestled in the Himalayas, just as it is found in the gaudy brothels of Bangkok and Seoul, South Korea. And it is beginning to afflict Asian men and women in equal numbers.

In Asia, AIDS is usually spread by heterosexual contact between Asians. According to the World Health Organization, more than three-quarters of all HIV infections now develop heterosexually. The other important forms of transmission, it says, are the sharing of dirty needles between intravenous drug users and sex between men.

"My boss told me AIDS wasn't a problem because I was a woman," said Marta, 22, a Filipino who was working as a prostitute in Manila when she learned last year that she had contracted the AIDS virus.

"The boss was lying. He said AIDS would only kill the homosexuals and the foreigners," she said. "I always tried to make the foreign customers wear condoms. Usually they would."

What discourages and infuriates many AIDS specialists is that Asian governments, with the notable exception of the Thai government and a few others, are doing little to control the epidemic.

In most Asian nations, no one knows how far AIDS has spread. Few nations carry out comprehensive testing for HIV. Yet when testing is done, the results can be nightmarish, as government health officials here in Thailand have discovered.

The Thai government estimates that 200,000 to 400,000 people, of a population of 58 million, are infected with the AIDS virus. According to the government, that number could rise to 2 million to 4 million, or as much as 6 percent of the Thai population, by the end of the decade.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 1 million people in India, out of 860 million, are infected with HIV -- more than in all of Europe and about as many as in the United States. Yet only recently has the Indian government started a serious anti-AIDS campaign.

In Bombay, the first clinic for anonymous AIDS testing opened weeks ago.

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