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Monday, 8 October, 2001, 07:49 GMT 08:49 UK
Cultural taboos increase women's HIV risk
An HIV-positive orphan in Phnom Penh
Aids infections in Asia could one day outstrip Africa
Rural and island women are especially vulnerable to infection from HIV and find it harder to gain access to proper treatment, an international conference on Aids in Asia and the Pacific has heard.

An estimated 16.4 million women are infected with Aids or HIV worldwide and their situation is made worse by cultural taboos making it difficult for people to discuss the disease.


The barrier is inhibitions to sex education, we need to get the information to village elders and religious leaders in rural areas

Princess Nanasipauu Tukuaho of Tonga

A group of the first ladies of Malaysia, Fiji, Tonga, Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan said that poverty and low social standing were also hampering education and treatment efforts for women throughout the region.

Speakers at the sixth International Congress on HIV and Aids in Asia and the Pacific, taking place in Melbourne, warned that in future years Asia could overtake Africa in rates of infection.

Taboos

"There are cultural taboos that prevent the old and young, parents and children from getting this message across," said Princess Nanasipauu Tukuaho, the wife of the prime minister of the island of Tonga.

"The barrier is inhibitions to sex education. We need to get the information to village elders and religious leaders in rural areas," she said.

Aids drugs
Treatments for Aids patients are expensive

Rural and islander women are also at risk from infection because they lack the power to negotiate for safe sex with their partners, the first lady of Malaysia, Siti Hasmah Binti Haji Mohd Ali, said.

"Low levels of education prevent them from accessing information about the disease, while some traditions ensure that subjects such as sex are taboo," she said.

"Further, when they are infected, they are unable to access treatment because of the stigma and discrimination associated with the disease."

Economic fallout

Fallout from economic crises in the region have also taken a toll.

There are fears that in Fiji more women are turning to prostitution as a means to support their families following last year's coup, said the first lady of Fiji, Adi Salaseini Kavu Uluivuda.

"Our struggling economy cannot afford the costs in providing free drugs for those with HIV," she said.

And in Papua New Guinea women account for 45% of HIV cases and 89% were infected through heterosexual intercourse.

Local health authorities in Papua New Guinea estimate that up to 15,000 people, or 0.6%, of the adult population of have HIV. Among women sex workers in the capital, Port Moresby, the infection rate is 17%.

The disease spreads along the main island highways and has affected all provinces.

See also:

25 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Burma faces Aids explosion
01 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Thailand launches $1 health scheme
23 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
China comes clean on Aids
09 Aug 01 | Europe
Aids scandals around the world
08 Apr 99 | Medical notes
Blood: The risks of infection
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