Deaths and new cases of HIV/AIDS reached new highs in 2003 and are set to rise further as the epidemic keeps a stranglehold on sub-Saharan Africa and advances across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, according to United Nations figures released Tuesday. The new global estimates by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), based on improved data, show about 40 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS, including an estimated 2.5 million children under 15 years old. About 5 million people were infected with HIV in 2003, and more than 3 million died. "The AIDS epidemic continues to expand--we haven't reached the limit yet," said Peter Piot, UNAIDS director. "More people have become infected this year than ever before, and more people have died from AIDS than ever before. It is the first cause of death in Africa and the fourth cause of death worldwide."
Sub-Saharan Africa remains the worst-affected region of the world with about 3.2 million new infections and 2.3 million deaths in 2003. Southern Africa is home to about 30% of people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide, yet the region has less than 2% of the global population. In Botswana and Swaziland the HIV prevalence rate among adults is 40%. Piot said the epidemic, fueled by intravenous drug use and unsafe sex, is spreading in densely populated India and China as well as Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, and in Eastern Europe, where the hardest-hit areas include the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Estonia, and Latvia. "The burden of the HIV epidemic will become bigger and bigger over time because it takes, on average, seven to 10 years after infection before you fall ill and, if there is no treatment, before you die," Piot said. "In other words, even if by some miracle all transmission of HIV stopped, people would still become ill. We are only at the beginning of the impact of AIDS, certainly in Africa."