Afghan drugs a worry as Pakistanis confront AIDS

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afghan opium ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Afghanistan's booming opium trade is a huge concern for Pakistan as it confronts the spread of HIV/AIDS, especially among intravenous drug users, Pakistan's minister of health said on Wednesday.

Pakistan recorded its first case of HIV infection in 1987 and the number of confirmed cases is now 3,556 -- of whom more than 300 have developed AIDS -- but experts say the true figure could be many times higher.

Health Minister Mohammad Naseer Khan said Pakistan was a low-prevalence but high-risk country when it came to AIDS.

The government was committed to the fight against the disease but efforts had to be intensified to tackle Afghanistan's booming output of opium -- the raw material for heroin, he said.

"We are committed for a strong program to combat HIV/AIDS, especially the IDU users," Khan told a news conference, referring to intravenous drug users.

U.N. Office on Drugs and Crimes said recently that Afghanistan's opium harvest had reached a new record this year with production 50 percent higher than last year.

"Today in Afghanistan, you have highest production of opium to date. Ten years ago it nearly reached zero," said Khan, who attended a U.N. meeting on injecting drug use and HIV/AIDS on Wednesday.

"So that's a huge concern for Pakistan. More has to be done by the government of Afghanistan, and also all the donor agencies and coalition forces to stop that production," he said.

The United Nations had asked Afghanistan's NATO security force to do something about the drug problem, a senior U.N. official said.

"The U.N. is very much concerned," U.N. Resident Coordinator in Pakistan Jan Vandemoortele told the news conference.

"Our program of poppy eradication, of course, is not yielding the results required," he said.

Khan said public information was also vital in the fight against AIDS.

"We don't have to be pornographic about HIV/AIDS but we must tell our children what it is, and how to stay away from it," Khan said.

"In Pakistan, we do not shy away from our responsibilities, it is affecting our children also ... We have a very strong program in the country. We are reaching out to IDUs," he said.

 © Reuters 2006