Busan, Korea (BBN)– The AIDS epidemic in Asia and the Pacific is at a crossroads, a United Nations report said on Friday.

It also added that while the region has seen impressive gains in the HIV response, greater and sustained efforts will be needed.

An estimated 4.9 million people were living with HIV in Asia and the Pacific in 2009, according to the report by the Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) that was launched at the 2011 International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, in Busan, Republic of Korea.

The majority of them are living in 11 countries: Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Thailand and Viet Nam.

The report found that the region has seen a 20 per cent drop in new infections between 2001 and 2009, and a three-fold increase in access to antiretroviral therapy since 2006. Notably, Cambodia, India, Myanmar and Thailand have reduced their HIV infection rates significantly with intensive HIV prevention programs for people who buy and sell sex.

At the same time, the report warned that this progress is threatened by an inadequate focus on key populations at higher risk of HIV infection and insufficient funding from both domestic and international sources.

In addition, while more people than ever before have access to HIV services across the region, most countries there are a long way from achieving universal access goals for HIV prevention, treatment, care and support, according to a press statement issued by UNAIDS.

The report also cited an estimated 15 per cent drop in new HIV infections among children since 2006. However, regional coverage of HIV services to prevent new HIV infections in children continues to lag behind global averages, particularly in South Asia.

New HIV infections in the region remain concentrated among key populations: people who buy and sell sex, people who inject drugs, men who have sex with men, and transgender people. And yet, “most programs to protect key populations and their intimate partners from HIV infection are inadequate in size and scale,” the UNAIDS said.

In addition, stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV and populations at higher risk of infection are still a problem. Around 90 per cent of the countries in the region retain punitive laws and policies that effectively prevent people living with HIV and key populations from accessing life-saving HIV services.

Lack of funding is another concern, according to the report, which said that an estimated $1.1 billion was spent on the AIDS response in 30 countries across the region in 2009 – just one third of the funding needed to achieve universal access goals to HIV services.

The report added that investments to protect key populations from HIV remain insufficient. Among countries reporting detailed expenditure data in 2010, only 8 per cent of total AIDS spending in South Asia and 20 per cent in South-east Asia focused on HIV prevention among key populations at higher risk of HIV infection.

After the removal of Fiji’s restrictions, UNAIDS counts 47 countries, territories, and areas that continue to impose some form of restriction on the entry, stay and residence of people living with HIV based on their HIV status. At least, 128 countries have no such restrictions.

BBN/SSR/SI-27Aug11-10:07 am (BST)