Press Release - MANILA, 25 November 2010-The World Health Organization (WHO) today welcomed a statement by Pope Benedict XVI that the use of condoms is acceptable in halting the spread of AIDS.

"The Pope's statement is in line with evidence that condoms are highly effective in preventing infection with the HIV virus," said Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO's Regional Director for the Western Pacific. "If used correctly and consistently, the male condom is the most efficient protection against the sexual transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections."

While recognizing that the Pope did not endorse the use of condoms for contraception, Dr Shin said he hoped the Pontiff's statement would help reduce resistance to condom use in some sectors of society, particularly in the Catholic Church. "The truth is there for everyone to see," he said. "Unprotected sex is a central driver of the AIDS epidemic in Asia."

HIV prevalence in the Asia Pacific region reaches up to 20% among sex workers and up to 30% among men having sex with men. However, the region has been successful in preventing a generalized HIV epidemic (for example, in Cambodia and Thailand) and in avoiding uncontrolled HIV spread among sex workers (China and Myanmar), primarily due to intensive condom-use programmes.

According to the Report of the Asia Commission on AIDS in 2008, an estimated 75 million men in the region buy sex from 10 million sex workers, and also have sex with another 50 million regular or casual partners. An estimated 10 million men have sex with men, with a large number of them married.

In a statement to mark World AIDS Day, WHO warned that HIV cases in the Western Pacific Region will continue to rise unless countries strengthen measures targeted at people with risky lifestyles.

There are still 130 000 to 150 000 new infections every year in the Western Pacific Region, mostly related to high-risk lifestyles. These include unprotected sex, sharing drug needles, men having sex with men and with members of the transgender community.

Despite stabilization of HIV prevalence in the Western Pacific-now below 0.1%-the number of new HIV infections must first decrease dramatically before the epidemic can be brought under control, WHO said.

While condom use remains the core strategy for preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STI) among sex workers, essential and affordable sexual and reproductive health services should also be made available to sex workers to address a host of other issues, WHO said.

These services include voluntary HIV counselling and testing, STI diagnosis and treatment, cervical cancer prevention, prevention of parent-to-child transmission, contraception counselling, abortion and post-abortion care, as well as specialized support to the transgender community.

An estimated 1.4 million people are living with AIDS in the Western Pacific Region, compared with approximately 680 000 10 years ago. Globally, an estimated 33.4 million people have HIV.

WHO marks World AIDS Day on 1 December. This year's theme is "Universal access and human rights". The objective is to draw public attention to the rights of people living with HIV, and to mobilise support for the protection of these rights in order to promote universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.