Focus on gay men, drug users: HIV experts

Mahidol Award winners also call for countries to help eliminate AIDS stigma

Thailand and other countries are being urged to pay more attention to HIV prevention among gay men and drug users as well as work on eliminating the stigma against people living with Aids, the world's top health experts said yesterday.

"We need to devote more attention to the protection of homosexual men and drug users and continue fighting stigma, especially among the young, which is very important to fight against the epidemic," Prof Peter Piot, a director at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said.

Piot, who was previously an executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAids), was one of the four physicians who won this year's Prince Mahidol Award for their dedication to HIV/Aids research.

Prof David D Ho and Dr Anthony Fauci are being honoured for their work in the field of medicine related to HIV/Aids, while Prof Piot and Dr Jim Yong Kim will be awarded for their work in the fields of HIV/Aids and public health.

HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn will present the awards today. According Piot, who has played a key role in controlling the spread of Aids, Thailand is the first country to cut down on the number of HIV infections and provide free anti-retroviral drugs.

Thailand has also succeeded in promoting the use of condoms and effectively campaigning against the stigma associated with HIV, he said.

However, he said, all countries need to address the prevention of HIV among gay men and other marginalised communities that face a high risk of infection.

'Still a long way to go'

"We still have a long way to go to win the fight against HIV/Aids. It is not over. We need to double our efforts to end the epidemic," Piot said.

He also called for international agencies to provide financial resources for the anti-HIV/Aids movement.

Dr Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has been researching HIV, said a new version of the anti-retroviral drug - which is able to suppress the virus and help people living with Aids lead normal lives - would be available this year.

However, he said, early detection and treatment were also very important before the patient develops complications.

In the United States, he said, about 18 per cent of the people infected with HIV are unaware of their infection and about 55 per cent of all HIV infections come from people who don't know they are infected. That's why early detection is important because not only does it allow for treatment, it can also help prevent the spread of disease.

Dr Ho, president of the Aaron Diamond Aids Research Centre in New York, was the first person to initiate the use of the highly active anti-retroviral therapy.

He said that apart from the drug, a curative therapy study was also ongoing.