HIV/AIDS in Asia
May 2018—The Asia-Pacific region is home to nearly 60% of the world’s population and more HIV-positive people than any region outside sub-Saharan Africa. At the time that TREAT Asia was founded in 2001, there was a high prevalence of HIV in certain localities and among key population groups, including men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, and sex workers. At the same time there was poor access to available treatment overall, and especially for members of these marginalized populations. While substantial progress has since been made to develop comprehensive local, national, and regional responses to combat HIV, troubling trends in recent years suggest that efforts need to be re-invigorated, stepped up, and better targeted to reach people most at risk.
UNAIDS reported that in 2016, there were an estimated 270,000 new HIV infections in the Asia-Pacific, bringing the total number living with HIV/AIDS in the region to 5.1 million.1 In 2016, approximately 170,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses in the region, a 30% decline in deaths since 2010,1 but in some countries AIDS-related deaths have increased.2
Access to antiretroviral therapy (ART) in the region increased from 19% in 2010 to 47% in 2016, when approximately 2.4 million people had access to ART. However, this falls below the treatment access levels globally (53%).3 Large numbers of people living with HIV in the Asia-Pacific, including 59% of HIV-positive children under age 15, still do not have access to ART.4 Only 46% of HIV-positive pregnant women in Asia have access to the antiretroviral medicines needed to prevent mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV.5 In fact, the Asia Pacific region lags well behind certain regions in Africa in terms of ART and PMTCT coverage.
People Most at Risk
HIV rates among key populations in Asia—people who inject drugs (PWID), men who have sex with men (MSM), transgender people, and sex workers—are far higher than among the general population. And while there is wide variation among countries and different key populations, testing rates generally remain low. In 2016 about half of PWID, MSM, transgender people, and sex workers had been tested for HIV during the previous 12 months and knew their HIV status.3 Other groups with increased vulnerability to HIV include migrant workers and women. Children and adolescents also lag behind adults in treatment rates, and often have higher death rates from HIV/AIDS-related causes.
The sharp rise in the number of new HIV infections among MSM in the region has continued, and sexual activity between men remains stigmatized and often hidden. HIV prevalence among MSM was higher than 5% in 9 of the 19 countries that reported data to UNAIDS in 2015. The countries reporting the highest rates are Indonesia (25.8%) and Australia (18.3%).5 Many urban areas have extremely high HIV prevalence among MSM, including Bangkok, Thailand (28.6%); Yangon, Myanmar (26.6%); and Yogyakarta, Indonesia (20.3%). Rates among younger men (aged 15 to 24 years) are especially high.6 Male-male sex remains illegal in a number of countries in the region and prevention programs for MSM remain limited. Studies in several countries have found high levels of risk behaviors among MSM, including having multiple sex partners and low rates of condom use. By 2020, almost 50% of all new infections in Asia could be in MSM, according to the UN Commission on AIDS in Asia. Unless the course of the HIV epidemic among MSM is changed, new infection rates among this population will surpass those among every other high-risk group in the region. Scale-up of HIV programs targeting MSM and reduction of the stigma and discrimination they frequently encounter are essential..
There is limited data on transgender people in Asia, but certain cities have reported high HIV prevalence in this risk population; for example, 30.8% in Jakarta, Indonesia, and 19.3% in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.6 Reported country rates of HIV in transgender people include 24.8% in Indonesia, 7.2% in India, 5.5% in Pakistan, 4.2% in Micronesia, 1.7% in the Philippines, and 1.4% in Bangladesh.5 Such data suggests substantial need for transgender-specific health services in order for them to access prevention and treatment interventions.
People Who Inject Drugs
One-third of the world’s population who inject drugs live in the Asia-Pacific6 and are at increased risk of HIV and hepatitis C infection. Many countries in the region still lack effective harm reduction programs, though some have taken steps in recent years to expand access to syringe exchange, overdose prevention, and opioid substitution therapy. In many countries drug laws often conflict with HIV prevention strategies, and the financial resources available for harm reduction programs are still far below what is needed. In 2015, UNAIDS reported that HIV prevalence among PWID was higher than 5% in 11 of the 15 countries in the region that provided data,6 with much higher rates in some countries, including the Philippines (29%), Indonesia (28.7%), Myanmar (26.3%), Cambodia (24.8%), Pakistan (21%), and Thailand (19%). In some cities this proportion is higher still: for example, 60.7% of PWID in Kota Pontianak, Indonesia, and 47.4% of PWID in Faisalabad, Pakistan, are living with HIV. In 2015 PWID accounted for 29-65% of new HIV infections among adults 15-49 in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Vietnam.6
HIV prevalence among sex workers is over 5% in several countries in the region, with the highest reported rate in Papua New Guinea (17.8%).5 The rate is even higher in some urban areas. For example, Yangon, Myanmar, had a 24.6% prevalence of HIV among female sex workers in 2015. However, high condom use among female sex workers, with a medium regional rate of 81%, correlates with declining HIV rates in this population.6 There are significant efforts underway to study and implement PrEP programs for female sex workers in the region.
Economic upheaval over the past several decades has resulted in increased population mobility and environmental degradation, encouraging people to move to cities in search of better employment opportunities. Sexual transmission of HIV is exacerbated by this mobility, with migrant workers spending long periods of time away from home and potentially engaging in high-risk behaviors. Throughout the region, HIV continues to spread along trucking routes; among traveling sailors, fishermen, and migrant workers; and within the sex industry, which is itself fueled by economic disparity.
As elsewhere in the developing world, sex-based socioeconomic disparities play a significant role in the spread of HIV. Even when women know or suspect that their partners are HIV-positive or are having sex with multiple partners, they often have little power to insist on condom use. As a result of these and other factors, women accounted for 36.7% of adults with HIV in Asia in 20167—up from 21% in 1990.
Children and Adolescents
AIDS-related deaths among 10-19 year olds almost quadrupled in South Asia between 2001 and 2015 (from 1,500 to 5,300), and they have increased from 1,000 to 1,300 during the same period in East Asia and the Pacific.8 Despite a 38% decline in new infections among children age 14 and younger in Asia and the Pacific between 2010 and 2016,1 the number of HIV-positive children in the region continues to grow. In 2015, approximately 190,000 children in the region were living with HIV.7 Programs to prevent mother-to-child-transmission have had varied success throughout the region, ranging from elimination of MTCT in Thailand to a 39% increase since 2010 in Indonesia.2 Approximately 46% of HIV-positive pregnant women in the Asia-Pacific are receiving ART to prevent infection in their babies, compared to 89% of HIV-positive pregnant women in East and Southern Africa.5 Many HIV-positive women remain reluctant to seek antiretroviral therapy or to bottle-feed their infants for fear of arousing suspicion regarding HIV status and confronting associated stigma and discrimination. Access to pediatric HIV treatment remains limited; in 2016 only 41% of HIV-positive children in the region were receiving antiretroviral treatment.4 Successful transition of infected adolescents from pediatric to adult HIV care remains a challenge, and adolescence is a particularly perilous time for youth who have been HIV positive since birth.
While there were 15,000 new infections in children 14 years of age and younger in 2016,1 there were approximately 50,000 new HIV infections among adolescents aged 15-19 in 2014, representing 15% of new infections in the region. Currently the Asia-Pacific has about 220,000 adolescents living with HIV. Adolescents from key populations, in particular young men who have sex with men, make up a large percentage of the increase in new infections in this age group. According to UNICEF and UNAIDS, it will not be possible to end the AIDS epidemic as a public health threat by 2030 without tackling the HIV epidemic among adolescents.8
National HIV Data
While the overall prevalence of HIV in most Asian countries remains low, there are expanding HIV epidemics among certain populations and in certain countries. The majority of new HIV infections in the region occur in 10 countries: In 2016 China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam together accounted for more than 95% of all new HIV infections.3 In seven countries—the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh, and Australia—rates of new infections have increased between 2010 and 2016.2
• In China in 2016, 660,000 people knew they were HIV positive, and 490,000 were on treatment. Among gay men the HIV prevalence is 7.8%; among people who inject drugs it is 5.9%,2 and among sex workers it is 0.2%.5
• In India, the estimated number of HIV/AIDS cases in 2016 was 2.1 million, down from 2.2 million in 2010.2 Although the overall HIV prevalence is 0.3%,5 among sex workers it is 2.2%, among PWID it is 9.9%, among MSM it is 4.3%, and among transgender people it is 7.2%.2 Although the number of people on antiretroviral therapy has increased greatly, a high percentage of people with HIV do not get tested or access treatment until their disease has progressed to dangerous levels. About 77% of all people living with HIV in India know their status, and about 49% are on treatment.3
• Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, had 48,000 new infections in 2016, compared to 61,000 in 2010. According to UNAIDS, in 2016 only 35% of people living with HIV were aware of their status, and only 13% of the 620,000 people living with HIV/AIDS were receiving antiretroviral therapy. Around a quarter of MSM, transgender people, and PWID were estimated to be HIV positive. There has been an increase in new infections among children, up to 3,200 in 2016 compared to 2,300 in 2010. These numbers correspond to a decrease in the coverage of pregnant women living with HIV accessing antiretroviral medicines—from 19% in 2010 down to 14% in 2016. AIDS-related deaths increased from 23,000 in 2010 to 38,000 in 2016.2
• In Malaysia, more than 95% of people living with HIV have been diagnosed, but only 37% are on treatment. New infections decreased from 8,700 in 2010 to 5,700 in 2016. There are fewer than 100 new infections per year among children and there is a greater than 95% treatment coverage rate among children. The percentage of pregnant women living with HIV accessing antiretroviral treatment is 73%. HIV prevalence among MSM is 8.9%, in PWID it is 16.6%, and among sex workers, it is 7.3%.2
• In Myanmar in 2016, 230,000 people were living with HIV. There was a 26% decrease in new infections, from 15,000 in 2010 down to 11,000 in 2016. About 6% of MSM are HIV positive; and of these, 47% are accessing treatment. About 5.4% of sex workers are HIV positive and 44.6% of them know their status. Among female sex workers with HIV, 29% are accessing treatment. The prevalence of HIV among PWID is 26.3 %. 2,3
• Pakistan saw a 39% increase in new infections from 2010 to 2016 (from 14,000 to 19,000). During this time period, the number of people living with HIV nearly doubled, from 66,000 in 2010 to 130,000 in 2016. AIDS-related deaths more than quadrupled, increasing from 1,300 to 5,500. About 7% of people living with HIV are on treatment. Among key populations the statistics are worse: The HIV prevalence rate among PWID is 21% and the treatment coverage is 5.9%. Treatment coverage for other key populations is even lower—4.1% among sex workers, 2.3% among transgender people, and 1% among MSM.2,3
• In the Philippines in 2016, new HIV diagnoses were reported to be 141% higher than in 2010 (4,300 to 10,000), an alarming rate of increase. About 85% of new infections were among MSM. About 4.9% of MSM are living with HIV; about 1.7% of transgender people are HIV-positive; about 0.6% of sex workers have HIV; and about 29% of PWID have HIV. While 32% of people living with HIV are on treatment; only 10% of children living with HIV are on treatment and only 12% of pregnant women with HIV are accessing antiretroviral medicine. 2,3
• In Thailand, a country with a history of successful prevention efforts, overall HIV prevalence is 0.66%. The country has seen a 50% decrease in annual new infections between 2010 and 2016, and by the end of 2016, approximately 450,000 Thais were living with HIV/AIDS. Prevalence among people who inject drugs (PWID) remains high, at 19%, although it has declined somewhat in recent years. HIV prevalence among MSM in Thailand as a whole is at 9%, but in Bangkok MSM HIV prevalence is more than 28%. In Thailand, about 91% of people living with HIV have been diagnosed, and 69% of HIV-positive people are on treatment.2,3,6
• In Vietnam, the estimated number of people living with HIV has increased from 230,000 in 2010 to 250,000 in 2016. However, there has been a 34% decrease in new infections during this time period, from 17,000 to 11,000. About 70% of people living with HIV know their status, and 47% are on treatment. Among key populations, 8.2% of MSM are living with HIV and 9% are on treatment; 11% of PWID are HIV positive and 5% are on treatment; and 2.7% of sex workers are living with HIV and 1.9 percent are on treatment.2,3
Mounting an Effective Response
Evidence from successful interventions in the region shows that prevention efforts targeting those at greatest risk are essential to stem the spread of HIV. Above all, to be effective in Asia, prevention messages will have to both acknowledge and challenge cultural stereotypes and expectations that often prevent frank discussion of issues surrounding sex and drug use. Communities face persistent challenges to overcoming the stigma that surrounds the disease and creates barriers to prevention and care, and those that are most affected must be central to developing an effective response. Laws that criminalize key populations must be changed, as well as discriminatory practices such as those that allow employers to screen their workers for HIV.
Mounting an effective response to the epidemic in Asia and the Pacific will require increasing the level of resources committed to HIV/AIDS programs, using those resources where they are most needed, and balancing the need for continued prevention efforts with the growing demand for HIV treatment. It also requires continued and increased political commitment, involvement of communities in the design and delivery of interventions, and the application of new technologies and interventions such as rapid testing and PrEP. Better collection and use of strategic information, including surveillance and program data, is necessary to ensure that effective interventions are focused where, when, and on whom they are needed. As HIV clinical and treatment outcomes of those infected with HIV improve, addressing the chronic care needs of people living with HIV and AIDS, including coinfections, comorbidities, and mental health concerns, becomes increasingly important.
1UNAIDS Fact Sheet—World AIDS Day 2017, page 3
2UNAIDS Data 2017, pages 76-111.
3UNAIDS. Ending AIDS: Progress Towards the 90-90-90 Targets. Global AIDS Update, 2017, pages 122-127.
4UNAIDS 2016 AIDS DATA, page 34
6UNAIDS Prevention Gap Report 2016, pages 126-140
7UNAIDS Regional factsheets ASIA AND PACIFIC 2016
8UNICEF, UNAIDS and partners: Adolescents: Under the Radar in the Asia-Pacific AIDS Response