HIV infection rate stable, but problems remain

The incidence of new HIV infections appears to have stabilised for the first time in the 25-year history of Aids, although the global pandemic will still have a deep, long-term impact, according to a new United Nations report.

While the world is at last making progress against the disease—thanks to a massive increase in spending, better access to drugs and growing awareness—huge problems remain, the UN agency coordinating the fight against HIV/Aids warned on Tuesday.

“New data shows that the Aids epidemic is slowing down globally,” said the executive director of the UN Joint Programme on HIV/Aids, Peter Piot, at the launch of the Aids report.

“We’ve seen important progress made by countries over the past five years that increased funding, with a decrease in the number of new infections, particularly among young people,” Piot said at the UN headquarters in New York.

But he added that there is also bad news, highlighting the lack of progress in some countries, particularly South Africa, and the increase in the number of women getting infected.

“We are at the crossroads in this epidemic,” he said.

In its report, issued on the eve of a UN General Assembly session on the disease, UNAids underlines the dangers caused by prevention programmes, which it says in many countries are still far off-target and inaccessible to millions of people.

“Overall, the HIV incidence rate (the proportion of people who have become infected with HIV) is believed to have peaked in the late 1990s and to have stabilised subsequently, notwithstanding increasing incidence in several countries,” UNAids says in the latest Report on the Global Aids Epidemic.

However, the agency warns that there is no room for complacency. “We know what needs to be done to stop Aids. What we need now is the will to get it done,” the report says.

Aids has killed more than 25-million people since it was first recognised in 1981, UNAids said, while the HIV virus that precedes the disease has infected 65-million people over the same period.

Last year, Aids claimed the lives of 2,8-million people and more than 4,1-million were newly infected with HIV, according to the report.

In 2003, the UN estimated that 4,8-million were newly infected with HIV.

An estimated 38,6-million people were living with HIV at the end of 2005, the vast majority of whom were unaware that they were infected, it adds.

The UNAids report is based on detailed country-by-country estimates that the Geneva-based agency carries out only once every two years.

It points to “important progress” over the past five years, in the wake of a landmark 2001 UN summit that laid down targets for halting and starting to reverse the Aids epidemic by 2015.

However, there is still “extraordinary diversity” in the epidemic, with a mixture of success and failure, it says.
The disease is also predominantly spread by heterosexual sex.

Sub-Saharan Africa remains by far the worst-affected region, being home to two-thirds of all people living with HIV. Two million people died of Aids in the region last year and there were 2,7-million new infections.

While the epidemic in South Africa—one of the worst in the world—showed no evidence of a decline, other African countries nonetheless made major progress. HIV prevalence fell in Kenya and Zimbabwe, as well as in urban areas of Burkina Faso.

“In the rest of sub-Saharan African, the majority of epidemics appear to be levelling off,” says UNAids.

Elsewhere, there were declines in Cambodia and Thailand, but prevalence rose in China, Indonesia and Vietnam.

India overtook South Africa as the world’s worst-affected country in terms of the absolute number of people with HIV, although not as a proportion of the population.

Epidemics in the former Soviet Union also spiralled.

Global resources for the fight against Aids last year reached $8,3-billion—well within the range fixed by the UN summit in 2001. But annual needs are set to reach $22-billion by 2008, UNAids says.

Access to anti-retroviral drugs in developing nations has improved, it says. About 1,3-million were receiving them in 2005—up from 240 000 people in 2001, although the figure was still less than half the goal of three million set by the UN.

In a grimmer assessment, UNAids says that less than one in five people in the world at risk of HIV infection has access to basic prevention such as condoms and other safe-sex measures, or programmes specifically aimed at helping drug users or prostitutes.

In addition, only one in eight people worldwide who want to be tested for HIV is currently able to do so. Scaling up prevention and treatment could avert 29-million new infections by 2020, UNAids says.—AFP

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