Efforts to fight the AIDS pandemic are starting to make a real difference and a slight tweak to the approach could slice the rate of new infections, the United Nations' AIDS agency said on Monday.
The rate of new infections has tumbled 15 percent since 2001, and 2.5 million lives have been saved in low and middle-income countries thanks to the introduction of AIDS drugs and changes in behavior, UNAIDS said in its annual report on the often deadly and incurable virus.
“At the end of 2010, an estimated 34 million people were living with HIV worldwide, up 17 percent from 2001,” the report said. “This reflects the continued large number of new HIV infections and a significant expansion of access to antiretroviral therapy, which has helped reduce AIDS-related deaths, especially in more recent years.”
There is no cure for the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS and no vaccine has been shown to work adequately to protect people from infection. Since the virus emerged as an epidemic in the 1980s, about 27 million people have died of AIDS.
Better testing and treatment has helped reduce the rate of deaths, and helping people understand how to protect themselves and others by using condoms and reducing the number of sexual partners has helped control new transmissions, the report said. But it calls for doing even more to reduce new infections, especially with the use of drugs.
HIV drug cocktails don’t cure the infection but they can keep patients healthy and also reduce the likelihood that they will infect their sex partners. Studies are also beginning to show that uninfected people can take HIV pills, and that women can use them in a gel to protect themselves.
“The world faces a clear choice: maintain current efforts and make incremental progress, or invest smartly and achieve rapid success in the AIDS response,” according to the report.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton anticipated the report earlier this month and proposed a new direction for fighting AIDS globally, saying treating the deadly virus can also prevent its spread.
Clinton, outlining new priorities for the U.S. global AIDS program started in 2003, said drug treatments, combined with new efforts to stop mother-to-child transmission and encourage male circumcision, were all weapons the United States should use.
The UNAIDS report makes similar recommendations. “We are on the verge of a significant breakthrough in the AIDS response,” UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé said in a statement.
“The number of people dying of AIDS-related causes fell to 1.8 million in 2010, down from a peak of 2.2 in the mid-2000s," the report found. "A total of 2.5 million deaths have been averted in low- and middle-income countries since 1995 due to antiretroviral therapy being introduced, according to new calculations by UNAIDS. Much of that success has come in the past two years when rapid scale-up of access to treatment occurred; in 2010 alone, 700,000 AIDS-related deaths were averted.”
“There were 2.7 million new HIV infections in 2010, including an estimated 390,000 among children. This was 15 percent less than in 2001, and 21 percent below the number of new infections at the peak of the epidemic in 1997.”
The report said a “more strategic” approach could avert 12.2 million new infections between now and 2020 and save 7.4 million lives.
“The world has embarked on a course to virtually eliminate new HIV infections among children. New HIV infections among children have already been virtually stopped in high income countries, with the number of new infections among children falling by 93 percent between 1992 and 2005 in the United States of America,” the report stated. “Comparable results can be achieved in low- and middle-income countries.”