Significant gains in preventing HIV, but not enough – UN report

29 July 2008 – While there have been significant gains in preventing new HIV infections in a number of heavily-affected countries and reducing the number of AIDS-related deaths, the epidemic is far from over in any part of the world, says a new United Nations report released today.

The 2008 Report on the global AIDS epidemic, produced by the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), is the most comprehensive review of the epidemic to date with 147 countries reporting data on HIV.

It notes, among other things, that the combined efforts of governments, civil society and affected communities can make a difference in saving lives.

For example, changes in sexual behaviour in countries such as Rwanda and Zimbabwe have led to a decline in the number of new HIV infections, and condom use is increasing among young people with multiple partners in many countries. Young people in seven of the most-affected countries, including Burkina Faso and Cameroon, are also waiting longer to have sex.

In addition, the percentage of HIV-positive pregnant women receiving antiretroviral drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission rose from 14 per cent to 33 per cent from 2005 to 2007. The number of new infections among children fell from 410,000 to 370,000 in the same period.

“The overall finding of the report is that we’ve made enormous progress, that there are real results,” UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot told journalists, as he launched the report in New York. “We’ve achieved more in the fight against AIDS in the last two years than in the preceding 20 years.”

At the same time, he stressed the need to sustain the gains made over the long term and scale up efforts at prevention and treatment. The report notes that while the number of new HIV infections has declined from 3 million in 2001 to 2.7 million in 2007, the rates of infection are rising in many countries such as China, Indonesia, Kenya and Russia.

There are now an estimated 33 million people living with HIV worldwide, with 2 million estimated to have died from AIDS last year. Also, AIDS continues to be the leading cause of death in Africa.

Dr. Piot noted that there are still five new infections for every two people who are newly put on treatment. “So the gap between those who are in need of treatment and those who have access to treatment is widening. Ultimately, we’ll have to intensify our interventions… our prevention efforts to stop this epidemic,” he stated.

The head of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) agreed that HIV prevention efforts must be intensified, particularly among young people.

“We will not be able to beat the HIV epidemic without a sustained success in reducing HIV infections, especially among young people,” said Executive Director Thoraya Obaid, noting that 45 per cent of all the new adult infections last year were among young people aged 15 to 24.

Despite the progress cited by the report in terms of increased condom use among young people and the fact that more of them are waiting longer to have sex, they still remain vulnerable because many of them lack accurate and comprehensive information on how to protect themselves from infection, she said.

The report – issued by UNAIDS every two years – comes just days ahead of the XVII International AIDS Conference, set to begin in Mexico City on 3 August.

The event will bring together world leaders, policymakers, academics and activists to review lessons learned and build momentum towards achieving universal access goals by 2010 and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – which includes the target of halting the spread of HIV/AIDS – by 2015.

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