AIDS Sweeps Asian Prisons

JAKARTA, Indonesia – Unprotected sex and widespread drug use in Asia’s overcrowded and outdated prisons is fueling the AIDS epidemic in the region, and governments have been slow to recognize the threat, activists say.

Prisons are “HIV factories,” according to Family Health International, an AIDS prevention group in Jakarta. Few governments in Asia's developing economies keep official figures on HIV infections among inmates. But private groups say they are rising at an alarming rate.

In Indonesia, prisons that had reported almost no HIV cases among inmates in 1999 had almost 25 percent of their populations infected in 2003, the National AIDS Commission said.

In Thailand, one quarter of inmates at Klong Prem Central Prison on the outskirts of Bangkok have tested positive for HIV, activists say. AIDS disease has also become a leading killer in Cambodian jails.

Rising HIV rates in Asian prisons reflect a global trend that has also hit Africa, South America and Russia, the United Nations says. South African prisons have seen death rates surge 500 percent in recent years largely because of AIDS.

Some prisons in Indonesia have started distributing information to new inmates on the dangers of unprotected sex and intravenous drug use and plan to introduce methadone – a heroin substitute prescribed to addicts – in Jakarta and Bali prisons starting last month.

But prison officials say they have no money to test inmates for HIV or pay for treatments. Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, has refused to follow the lead of European countries and offer free condoms or clean needles for injecting drug users. Officials say doing so would promote gay sex and drug use.

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