At least 4 million receiving AIDS drugs, but millions more lack access, UN reports

A health worker counselling women about HIV/AIDS treatment

30 September 2009 – Over 4 million people are now receiving treatment for HIV, marking a nearly 40 per cent jump from the previous year, but at least 5 million others still do not have access to much-needed medicines, according to a new United Nations report issued today.

The new study – produced jointly by the UN World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) – said that the 4 million figure at the end of 2008 represents a 10-fold increase over five years.

Despite the “tremendous progress” in responding to HIV/AIDS, “we need to do more,” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan.

“Prevention services fail to reach many in need,” she added. “Governments and international partners must accelerate their efforts to achieve universal access to treatment.”

Nearly half of the 9.5 million people in low- and middle-income countries needed antiretroviral therapy are now receiving, with the fastest progress being seen in sub-Saharan Africa, where two-thirds of all HIV infections occur.

Prices of antiretroviral treatments have dropped significantly in recent years, with first line regimen prices falling up to 40 per cent between 2006 and 2008. But second-line therapies remain expensive.

Worldwide, AIDS remains the leading killer of women of reproductive age.

Despite increased access to HIV services for women and children, “the disease continues to have a devastating impact on their health, livelihood and survival,” said Ann M. Veneman, UNICEF’s Executive Director.

More data on access to treatment for groups at high risk of HIV infection – such as sex workers and men who have sex with men – became available last year. These people, the report said, continue to face technical, legal and socio-cultural barriers to accessing health care services.

The number of people needing treatment is expected to surge in the coming years, said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé.

“Ensuring equitable access will be one of our primary concerns and UNAIDS will continue to act as a voice for the voiceless, ensuring that marginalized groups and people most vulnerable to HIV infection have access to the services that are so vital to their well-being and to that of their families and communities.”

Last week, UNAIDS and WHO cautioned that while the largest ever HIV vaccine clinical trial to date provides hope for eventual immunization in the general population, much more work needs to be done and current preventive strategies must be maintained.

“The study results, representing a significant scientific advance, are the first demonstration that a vaccine can prevent HIV infection in a general adult population and are of great importance,” the agencies said a statement, calling the results of the trial encouraging.

The RV144 HIV vaccine study in Thailand showed a 31.2 per cent efficacy in preventing HIV infections, a modestly protective result with no safety issues noted. “However, these results have instilled new hope in the HIV vaccine research field and promise that a safe and highly effective HIV vaccine may become available for populations throughout the world who are most in need of such a vaccine,” according to the statement.

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