REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- The world has made significant gains in its efforts to reduce new HIV infections and deaths from AIDS, according to the United Nations, with a 21% decrease in AIDS-related deaths since the 2005 peak. New infections fell by the same amount since the 1997 peak, according to a report by UNAIDS.
Sub-Saharan Africa is still the world's hardest hit region, with a million people dying of AIDS every year since 1998.
But recent improvements in access to antiretroviral medications are saving lives and preventing the spread of the disease, according to UNAIDS, the joint U.N. program on HIV/AIDS. About half the people who need antiretroviral medications, or ARVs, are getting them, according to the report released Monday.
In other key findings it reported:
- 34 million people globally are living with HIV
- 2.7 million people were infected with HIV in 2010
- 1.8 million people died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2010
The number of people getting lifesaving ARVs rose 20% from 2009 to 2010. Three African countries, Botswana, Nambia and Rwanda, achieved universal access, defined by UNAIDS as access for 80% or more of those eligible. Four African countries, Kenya, Ethiopia, Swaziland and Zambia, had coverage for between 60% and 80% of infected people.
Since 2007, the number of new infections has plateaued at 2.7 million, 70% of them in sub-Saharan Africa.
However in comparison with the disease peak in 1997, the annual number of new infections in sub-Saharan Africa has fallen by more than 26%, mainly due to changes in sexual behavior, condom use and male circumcisions, the report said.
In South Africa, 5.6 million people are living with HIV, the highest number in the world; 68% of all HIV cases are in sub-Saharan Africa.
The report said that improved access to ARVs had not only saved lives but reduced transmissions.
"In addition to improving quality of life and reducing AIDS-related deaths, antiretroviral treatment is now recognized as preventing HIV transmission, by reducing viral load and hence the potential for transmission," the UNAIDS report said. "Coupling treatment access with combination prevention options is pushing new HIV infections down to record levels.
"In countries with adult HIV infection levels in excess of 10%, HIV treatment in combination with behavior change programs and medical male circumcision programs may be the key to achieving rapid declines in new HIV infections," the report said.
In June, U.N. members agreed to increase funding for HIV prevention and treatment to between $22 billion and $24 billion by 2015, a critical level to ensure universal access to ARVs, the report said.
But the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders said that while dramatic increases in funding were needed, contributions were falling. Donor funding for AIDS prevention declined $ 7.6 billion in 2009 to $6.9 billion in 2010.
Doctors Without Borders cited breakthrough scientific research in 2011 that showed that a person who started HIV treatment early was 96% less likely to pass on the disease. (Male circumcision alone reduces transmission by 60%.)
“Never, in more than a decade of treating people living with HIV/AIDS, have we been at such a promising moment to really turn this epidemic around,” said Tido von Schoen-Angerer, a spokesman for Doctors Without Borders. “Governments in some of the hardest hit countries want to act on the science, seize this moment and reverse the AIDS epidemic. But this means nothing if there’s no money to make it happen.”
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: Vusi Lukhele, 6, says prayers before bed at the Cabrini Orphan Hostel in eastern Swaziland in 2006. The HIV-positive boy lost his father to AIDS, his mother was sick and he was receiving antiretroviral medication. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times