UN envoy urges Indonesia to step up AIDS battle

JAKARTA, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Indonesia should be more aggressive in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS to the general population while infection levels are still low, a U.N. special envoy said on Friday.

Indonesia faces a growing AIDS problem, particularly among drug users and prostitutes. However, the country's overall estimated HIV infection rate remains among the lowest in the region totalling about 0.4 percent of the population.

"The window of opportunity is now open to keep the epidemic at low levels," Nafis Sadik, special U.N. envoy for HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, told reporters.

"I am happy with the progress, but Indonesia needs to do more," said Sadik during a five-day visit to the Southeast Asian nation where she met ministers to review the country's progress in tackling the problem.

"Prevention has to be equal priority if not more priority in the programme. Unless you prevent it you are not going to get rid of HIV."

Since the epidemic first surfaced in Indonesia 20 years ago, the government has recorded 10,000 full-blown AIDS cases, but the National AIDS Commission estimates there are hundreds of thousands of unreported cases.

The commission estimates Indonesia will have 1 million cases by 2015 if efforts to fight the disease are not stepped up in the country of more than 220 million people.

Sadik said the country has to step up its current programmes to promote behaviour change and use of condoms.

But according to the National AIDS Commission, religious groups in the world's most populous Muslim nation have strongly criticised nation-wide condom use campaigns, accusing the government body of promoting promiscuity.

Sadik also said the province of Papua, which lies on Indonesia's easternmost fringe, requires special attention as the disease has started to spread from prostitutes to housewives, raising fears of an African-style epidemic.

"There are some indications that it will move from where it is to the general population. It's a matter of serious concern," Sadik said.

Papua's number of cases per 100,000 people is nearly 20 times the national average, according to a government study published in 2007.

Health experts say the disease has been spreading rapidly due to several factors -- high rates of promiscuity, rituals in some Papuan tribes where partner swapping takes place, poor education about AIDS and lack of condoms. (Reporting by Adhityani Arga; Editing by Sugita Katyal and Katie Nguyen)