New HIV infections hit a record high last year, as the virus continues to outpace the global effort to contain it, according to a United Nations report published Tuesday. The number of people living with HIV has risen in every region of the world. Last year 5 million people became infected--more than in any single year since the crisis began. Nine out of 10 who urgently need treatment are not getting it, and prevention measures are still only reaching one in five people who should have them, the report says.
"The virus is running faster than all of us," said Peter Piot, director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. The agency compiles a global AIDS report every two years. This year's report provides the most accurate picture yet of HIV's march across the planet. It says new epidemics seem to be spreading unchecked in Eastern Europe and Asia. To tackle the pandemic, $12 billion a year is needed by next year, instead of the $10 billion that was predicted earlier. In more revised estimates based on better information than was previously available, the U.N. AIDS agency figures that about 38 million people are infected. Until now, experts had put the ranks of the HIV-afflicted at about 40 million.
The cost estimates have increased at the same time that the estimated size of the problem has decreased partly because of the price of delaying action but also because the planned campaign is now more comprehensive than it has ever been, Piot said. "We didn't really fully appreciate the importance of a number of things, like the danger of spreading HIV through normal medical equipment. That's a new cost. Also, protecting health care workers is more expensive than we thought, and the cost of taking care of orphans was grossly underestimated before."
However, there have been triumphs. Many countries, including Brazil, Uganda, and Thailand, have reduced HIV infection. Drug prices have dropped dramatically and money is beginning to flow in for the global effort. More politicians are showing commitment to the fight and drugs are becoming increasingly available in poor countries.
Among the major challenges are women's and young people's vulnerability to the disease, ensuring that the virus doesn't become immune to drugs, retaining health workers in the developing world, tackling stigma, and looking after children orphaned by the disease. In some places the size of the health workforce needs to quadruple, the report found. Money also remains a significant problem. Funding has increased to about $5 billion a year in 2003, but that is still less than half of what is needed. By 2007, $20 billion a year will be needed to tackle AIDS in developing countries.
More than 20 million people have died since AIDS was first diagnosed in 1981, and about 3 million people have been dying each year, the report said. AIDS remains untamed in Africa. The continent is still seeing increasing rates of infection in the poorest countries, but the disease is spreading fastest in Eastern Europe and Asia, which is home to 60% of the world's population. (AP)