The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned today that the HIV/AIDS epidemic may take a major turn for the worse in Asia unless countries urgently expand access to services to men who have sex with men (MSM).

WHO said a review in December 2007 showed that in Cambodia and Vietnam, men who have sex with men are more likely to contract HIV compared to the general population.

In China, the risk of infection by men who have sex with men is 45 times higher than for men in general.

Asia is believed to have the world’s largest number of men having sex with men, estimated at 10 million.

WHO’s Regional Office for the Western Pacific, in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme, UNAIDS and the Hong Kong (China) Department of Health, to call for swift action to address the issue.

They will meet with HIV/AIDS specialists from Asian governments, regional experts and representatives from non-governmental organisations from this week to consider strategies to deliver better services to MSM communities.

“Studies show that at present, the proportion of HIV infections being transmitted among men who have sex with men is larger and more significant than we had originally believed,” said Dr Massimo Ghidinelli, WHO Regional Adviser in HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections.

“Action needs to be taken now if a major increase in HIV/AIDS cases is to be averted. We need to target HIV prevention strategies, together with better access to health services, for men who have sex with men.”

Strengthening surveillance and implementing effective interventions for HIV prevention and care among men having sex with men should be prioritised to prevent the further spread of the virus, WHO said.

Enacting or enforcing legislation outlawing discrimination against people living with HIV and members of other vulnerable groups would enhance the effectiveness of the response to HIV.

A recent UNAIDS report showed that targeted prevention interventions are reaching only 1% of the MSM population. The report also showed that in most countries in Asia and the Pacific, national strategic plans for HIV/AIDS do not cover interventions for MSM and transgender individuals.

Participating countries in the conference, which will take place in Hong Kong, are Australia, Cambodia, China, Fiji, Hong Kong (China), Japan, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.