JAKARTA, Nov 28, 2005 – Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, is on the brink of an AIDS epidemic and must act quickly to fight its spread, UNAIDS chief Peter Piot said Monday as he began a four-day visit here.

Piot, who will spend World AIDS day here on Thursday, said that Indonesia needed every layer of society to join the battle against HIV, the virus causing AIDS, as it was now the "new frontline of the AIDS epidemic".

"When I look at Indonesia from the perspective globally I would say that there’s no doubt that Indonesia is in the early stages of an AIDS epidemic," he told a press briefing after meeting with coordinating minister for social welfare, Alwi Shihab.

Indonesia estimates it has 90,000 to 130,000 people infected with HIV.

But other statistics show at least 600,000 intravenous drug users are in the sprawling archipelago country, with around half believed to be infected, the minister said.

Piot said that besides drug users, sex workers and their clients were clocking in "alarmingly high and increasing" infection rates, while in the eastern province of Papua, the virus was spreading speedily through the heterosexual population.

"We have these three different epidemics going on and we know from experience that once it starts like that it’s only a matter of time before HIV spreads outside these fairly defined populations," he said.

He said that while President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made his commitment to fighting AIDS clear, "we need that same level of commitment of all levels of society… We know from experience that’s how you make progress in AIDS."

The promotion of condom use in Indonesia, a Muslim nation, is extremely sensitive but Shihab said that his ministry was talking to religious leaders to emphasise the disastrous consequences of not doing so.

"We are giving the other perspective of religious understanding," he said, noting that under Islamic law it was also necessary to prevent death, and that maintaining life was the responsibility of all individual Muslims.

Piot said he chose to spend World AIDS day in Asia because he wanted to see attention focused on the region, where 10 years ago one person in 10 infected globally was from here. Now one in five new infections are in Asia.

"I wanted to highlight the situation in Asia, the fact that the epidemic is entering its globalisation phase and that I think it’s at high risk," he said.

He picked Indonesia in particular because the country "is the new frontline of the AIDS epidemic… all the elements are here for a rapid spread of HIV so it’s to express concern, to highlight the opportunities that are there.

"The opportunities are enormous to really stop the epidemic, to nip it in the bud."

Access to drugs is another challenge in Indonesia. Last year, the government pledged to increase its spending on subsidising drugs for HIV/AIDS patients here to 24 billion rupiah (2.49 million dollars), up from 10 billion rupiah the previous year.

However AIDS activists said that many Indonesians infected with the virus had not been able to get affordable access to the drugs.

/ Current Affairs