Women at risk of HIV infection from partners UN warns

More than 1.5 million women living with HIV in Asia were infected by their partners and 50 million more are at risk of infection, according to a report released on Tuesday.

The “HIV Transmission in Intimate Partner Relationships in Asia” report by UNAIDS said the women at risk are either married or in long-term relationships with men who engage in “high-risk sexual behaviours.”

“That is, men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, the clients of sex workers,” UNAIDS regional director Prasada Rao said.

“(It’s) a problem of great magnitude that the countries have largely ignored (and) a challenge that we may no longer ignore,” Rao told reporters on the sidelines of the ninth International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP), which is being held on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

Women accounted for 35 percent of all adult HIV infections in Asia in 2008, up from 17 percent in 1990, according to the report.

In Cambodia, India and Thailand, the largest number of new HIV infections occur among married women and in Indonesia the virus is now spreading to long-term partners and sex workers, it added.

“The facts speak for themselves. It is estimated that more than 90 percent of the 1.7 million women living with HIV in Asia became infected (by) husbands and partners while in long-term relationships,” Rao said.

“These women are often perceived as low risk… women who have not been adequately covered in our national responses.”

UNIFEM regional director for South Asia Jean D’Cunha said a “culture of silence” surrounding the issue of sexuality exists among Asian women and this diminishes their ability to protect themselves.

“There are unequal relations within marriage and the taboo around sex and sexuality makes it difficult for the women to talk openly to their partners. Their partners may not disclose their status or may not know their status,” she added.

“The women also fear violence if they talk about sexuality openly… or if they demand safe sex or pleasurable sex, they may be castigated as being too loose or too forward,” D’Cunha said.

The UNAIDS report calls for more HIV/AIDS prevention efforts among men who have sex with men, removal of punitive laws preventing intravenous drug users from access to clean injecting equipment and greater interventions with sex workers and their clients, Rao said.

“We must re-double our efforts to avert needless infections among these women,” he added.

The Bali congress, which runs until Thursday, covers topics ranging from HIV risks among transgenders and migrant workers to biomolecular advances in HIV treatment and the impact of the financial crisis on those with HIV/AIDS.

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