By Beh Lih Yi
JAKARTA, Oct 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Growing anti-gay sentiment in Indonesia could hamper efforts to combat fast-rising HIV infections among one of the most at-risk groups, threatening the country's target to end an AIDS epidemic by 2030, a senior official has warned.
Although new infections have been falling globally, Indonesia is one country where they are on the rise as the disease spreads rapidly among gay men and other men who have had sex with men (MSM) over the past decade.
HIV prevalence among the group jumped to 25.8 percent in 2015 from 5.4 percent in 2007, according to Indonesia's National AIDS Commission.
"In terms of number, MSM is the fastest growing (group)," the commission's secretary Kemal Siregar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Asia Pacific is home to the second highest number of people living with HIV in the world, with India, Indonesia and China accounting for around three quarters of new infections in 2015, according to the U.N's AIDS agency UNAIDS.
South Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV in the world.
UNAIDS estimates there are around 690,000 people living with HIV in Indonesia.
Siregar said there was now "uncertainty" over meeting Indonesia's target to end an AIDS epidemic by 2030 as efforts to reach out to the MSM group - who he described as "hidden population" - had become harder due to increasing social stigma.
This follows a backlash against Indonesia's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community earlier this year.
This was also exacerbated by a drop in foreign funding as Indonesia's economy grew and international donors withdrew. External funding was a key resource for HIV prevention work.
"If the funding is not there, it's very hard to reach this group because the government's funding is mostly for treatment, for medicines, not for prevention," the official said.
The LGBT community had long been tolerated in Indonesia, especially in urban areas but a backlash suddenly began in January after a minister said the community was banned from university campuses.
Attacks against the LGBT community quickly grew, with ministers and religious leaders denouncing homosexuality, prompting criticism from human rights group.
The government said in August there was "no room" for the LGBT movement in the Southeast Asia nation.
Siregar said the commission has intensified its efforts to reach out to the MSM group and planned to establish MSM-friendly clinics outside the 10 cities where they are currently located.
"They have to know this community, they have to reduce the stigma and have the communication skills to communicate with this group," Siregar said.
Since the first HIV case was reported in Indonesia in 1987, 13,449 people have died from the disease, according to the latest health ministry data as of March this year.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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