Poonam Khetrapal Singh And Shin Young-soo

Closing the gap in HIV response

Blood test samples taken as part of a campaign to prevent HIV infection in Bangkok. Fewer than half of all HIV-positive people across the Asia-Pacific region are aware of their status.
Blood test samples taken as part of a campaign to prevent HIV infection in Bangkok. Fewer than half of all HIV-positive people across the Asia-Pacific region are aware of their status.PHOTO: REUTERS

The focus of this year's World Aids Day is better access to services.

The vast majority of new HIV infections in the Asia-Pacific region are occurring among populations most vulnerable to HIV: men who have sex with men (MSM), transgender people, people who inject drugs, sex workers, as well as people in prisons and other closed settings.

Nearly five million people were living with HIV in the Asia-Pacific region in 2013 - about one-sixth of the global total. There were an estimated 350,000 new HIV infections in the region in 2013 - the second-highest regional HIV figure after sub-Saharan Africa.

Partnerships between health systems and communities in the region have improved access to life-saving treatment, increased domestic resources for HIV/Aids programmes and reduced stigmatisation and discrimination. For example:

  • Community organisations have helped formulate, implement and scale up the evidence-based recommendations in the consolidated guidelines of the World Health Organisation (WHO) on HIV prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care for key populations.
  • India's Avahan HIV programme helped strengthen community-based organisations, leading to a sharp fall in the epidemic in several high-prevalence states. The lessons learnt are being incorporated in the national response, helping to ensure sustainability.
  • In China, the government is increasingly engaging with civil society organisations. Non-governmental organisations such as Aids Care China are providing a key bridge between government HIV programmes and key populations.
  • The governments of Thailand and the Philippines, two of many countries where the MSM HIV epidemic is surging alarmingly, are working actively with MSM organisations that connect communities with HIV services.

All of these examples fit the theme of World Aids Day 2014: Closing the Gap. This theme is about empowering all people to access the services they need.

Fewer than half of all HIV-positive people across the Asia-Pacific region are aware of their status. An estimated 1.5 million people in the region are receiving antiretroviral treatment - about one-third of the region's HIV-positive population.

This is a significant improvement compared with a few years ago, but the journey is less than half complete. WHO member states can do better. It is only by closing testing and treatment gaps and reaching all those in need that we can achieve our goal of ending Aids in Asia by 2030.

We need to overcome challenges. Key populations continue to face stigmatisation and discrimination, including punitive legislation. This must change.

WHO consolidated guidelines are guided by human rights principles. They call for governments to enforce protective laws to eliminate discrimination and violence.

Today, WHO has released a new update to recommend antiretrovirals as an emergency prevention intervention following possible HIV exposure for HIV-negative individuals, and to prevent and manage common opportunistic infections that affect many people living with HIV.

We need more resources and wiser investments to address the HIV crisis in key populations. A renewed focus on HIV response needs to be articulated in the post-2015 health and development agenda.

WHO works to improve the continuum of HIV prevention, treatment and care. We work hand in hand with key populations - with a range of civil society organisations like the Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health - to help safeguard the health and well-being of millions of people.

Health is a human right. Creating an enabling environment ensures equity and respect for human rights, ensuring greater access to essential health services for all people.

The writers are the WHO regional directors for the South-east Asia Region and Western Pacific Region respectively.