(Updates with Hong Kong findings paras 10-12 and 15)
By Tan Ee Lyn
MEXICO CITY, Aug 4 Men who have sex with men are 19 times more likely to be infected with HIV than the general population, yet are ignored in many countries, an AIDS group said in a study released on Monday.
The report from the American Foundation for AIDS Research or AMFAR suggests the group originally at most risk of the fatal and incurable virus -- gay and bisexual men -- remain at highest risk, even as the pandemic has broadened to affect women and children as well.
AMFAR trawled through 128 country reports submitted to the United Nations AIDS agency UNAIDS to find that 44 percent of countries failed to provide any data on gay and bisexual men.
The study, released at a global AIDS conference in Mexico City, concluded that governments and global health agencies have failed to address the growing HIV epidemic among men who have sex with other men -- referred to widely among AIDS experts as MSM.
Despite a unanimous commitment that all U.N. member countries made in 2001 to monitor HIV among high-risk groups, the report found that 71 percent of countries said they did not have any information on the percentage of gay and bisexual men reached by HIV prevention programs.
"The failure of the Global Fund (for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria), PEPFAR (the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), The World Bank, and the world's other global health bodies to devote significant resources toward reducing HIV rates among MSM is indefensible," said AMFAR CEO Kevin Frost.
"These organizations have policies on women, drug users, migration -- but not one of them has a comprehensive policy on MSM."
The AMFAR report identified Kenya, Jamaica, Benin, Thailand, and Ghana as the countries with the highest reported percentage of gay and bisexual men infected with HIV.
Although data on them were scarce, the report found that men who had sex with other men were 18 times more likely to be infected with HIV than the general population in Asia and at least four times more likely in Africa.
Joe Chan of AIDS Concern in Hong Kong said new infections were occurring among some gay and bisexual men even after they had undergone repeated HIV tests and counseling.
"We talk to them for at least an hour each time, but that may not change their behavior. ... These are clients who have undergone repeated tests and we find that they are still engaging in unsafe sexual behaviour," Chan told Reuters.
"They would say they were approached unexpectedly and did not happen to have condoms with them."
In Latin America, which is hosting the biennial international AIDS conference for the first time, the report found gay and bisexual men were 33 times more likely to be infected with HIV than the general population.
In Bolivia, they were 179 times more likely to be infected with HIV than the general population. In Mexico, one study found 26 percent of men who had sex with men had HIV, the highest rate in any country in Latin America.
In Peru, the group Via Libre has tested 2,096 men since October 2007 and found that half the men did not use a condom in their last sexual encounter and 28 percent traded sex for money in the past three months. (Editing by Maggie Fox and Todd Eastham)