TREAT Asia Site Profile: AIDS Prevention and Research Centre, National Yang-Ming University, Taipei, Taiwan
October 2004—While Taiwan boasts one of the lowest rates of HIV infection in Asia, Dr. Yi-Ming A. Chen, director of the AIDS Prevention and Research Centre at the National Yang-Ming University in Taipei, believes this is no time for complacency.
As of July 2004, the official number of HIV/AIDS cases in Taiwan was 5,897, “but the real number of infections is probably two or three times that many,” said Dr. Chen. “In addition, in the last five years, infections among people in their 20s have risen sharply. This is an alarming sign that AIDS education among Taiwan’s youth needs to be strengthened.”
The first case of HIV infection in Taiwan was reported in 1985. Since then, the number of infections has increased at an annual rate of more than 15 percent. The main mode of transmission is through sexual contact, with more then 50 percent of new infections among men who have sex with men. But infections among injection drug users have increased dramatically and the number of HIV-infected prisoners has doubled in the last year, according to Dr. Chen.
Dr. Chen’s AIDS center, one of two TREAT Asia sites in Taiwan, was established in 1998. The main research activities of the center include monitoring HIV-1 epidemiology among high-risk groups and studying different subtypes, drug-resistant strains, and AIDS disease progression markers. Since April 2003, part of the research focus has shifted to SARS.
The cost of antiretroviral treatment in Taiwan is borne by the government. At the end of 2002, approximately 80 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHAs) were receiving combination therapy. According to Dr. Chen, one local drug manufacturer has started producing antiretroviral drugs, which are currently in clinical trials.
One of the biggest challenges facing Taiwan in its battle against HIV/AIDS is combating stigma and discrimination. PLWHAs are restricted from taking tests to become government employees and professional technologists, and a 2002 survey of medical personnel showed that 43 percent were unwilling to care for HIV/AIDS patients.
“To change people’s attitudes,” said Dr. Chen, “we invited family members of AIDS victims and volunteers to participate in a floating lantern ceremony in Taipei on World AIDS Day 1994. This has become an annual event since then. The images of pink and white lanterns floating on a river, as well as colorful AIDS quilts, have shocked and moved many people in Taiwan.”