BA VI, Vietnam (AP) – Clad in red or blue uniforms, hundreds of young women stream to and fro through the iron gates, some heading to work as embroiderers, others coming back from farm fields.

But this place is different. It’s a rehabilitation camp for 560 drug addicts and prostitutes, a quarter of whom are infected with HIV.

They are living warnings of Vietnam’s new war – against AIDS and the threat posed to its economic miracle by spiraling infection rates. But now the country has a fighting chance of stopping the epidemic.

Two weeks ago, President Bush added Vietnam to his $15 billion global AIDS initiative, the first and only Asian country on the list of 15. It was a surprising and controversial decision to those who had expected the choice to be India or China, with their much larger infected populations.

U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Randall Tobias was in Hanoi Friday, seeking a clearer picture of the communist country’s struggle to keep the disease contained.

International organizations, aid groups and U.S. officials in Hanoi say the country of 80 million presents the perfect test case for whether targeted funding can stem an AIDS crisis in the making.

They cite several factors: a disease that hasn’t yet spread into the general population, effective local prevention programs, and a renewed commitment from the communist country’s leadership.

“Vietnam is at a place where a combined effort could result in arresting a major epidemic – so you could have a success story on AIDS instead of a tragedy,” said Jordan Ryan, head of the UN Development Program.

Most of Vietnam’s estimated 200,000 infected people are intravenous drug users and prostitutes. But recent figures suggest that the disease has begun making inroads into the greater public – through men infecting wives and mothers infecting newborns.

Experts worry that new HIV infections have increased tenfold in the last seven years – with most victims in their 20s – and could easily soar to 1 million people by 2010, a rate proportionally even higher than China’s or India’s.

“Injection drug use is the engine of the epidemic. But sexual transmission is where the real epidemic explodes. We potentially have a major epidemic on our hands,” said Nancy Fee, country coordinator for UNAIDS.

What stung the government into action, say public health workers and international aid groups, was the threat to the young, strong, inexpensive labor force that has powered Vietnam’s economic growth, second only to China’s in the region.

One in 75 households has an HIV-positive family member, according to UNAIDS. “Vietnam has done so much to try and build a future for itself after the war. … Now the epidemic is moving to threaten that future and I think that began hitting home,” Fee said.

The AIDS strategy announced this year has been praised for its comprehensive and progressive approach – which promote condom usage and needle exchanges.

In a country where billboards still condemn AIDS, along with drugs and prostitution, as a “social evil,” public attitudes are slowly changing. State television has aired interviews with AIDS sufferers, and campaigns against stigma and discrimination have featured popular entertainers. Even the highly secretive Vietnamese military has agreed to work with its U.S. counterpart on AIDS to train its new recruits in disease prevention.

Under the Bush program, Vietnam would be eligible for an extra $8-10 million a year. Vietnam currently spends about US$20 million annually on AIDS programs, 80 percent of that funding comes from international donors.

Though it hasn’t been determined exactly how the money will be spent, U.S. officials say they expect it will focus on treatment and care of AIDS victims. Some 10,000 patients are at the stage of needing AIDS drugs, but Vietnam’s budget only pays for about 100 patients, at an annual cost of $2,000 each.

Money could also go toward innovative programs like the one at the Ba Vi rehabilitation center, located 40 miles northwest of Hanoi, where women serve mandatory two-year programs aimed at detoxification, health education, and job training.

One of dozens of camps around the country where Vietnam quarantines addicts and prostitutes, the Ba Vi center has fostered its own homegrown initiative pairing AIDS orphans with HIV-positive inmates, many of whom stay on voluntarily to care for the children after their time is served.

In a brightly lit nursery littered with colorful toys and plush animals, Nguyen Thi Hoa, 28, has both arms full of squirming toddlers. Hoa, who became infected through heroin use, says she feels an obligation to care for the infected children as her own healthy 10-year-son is being raised by her mother.

Abandoned at local hospitals or orphaned by infected parents, 16 children ranging from five months to six years old are being raised here.

“There are no boundaries here,” said Nguyen Thi Phuong, the center’s director. “They have come to love each other like mother and child.”

AP-ES-07-09-04 1437EDT

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