U.N.: AIDS Epidemic Stable But Prevention Still Lags

Fewer people are dying of AIDS, more patients are on HIV medication, and the global AIDS epidemic is stable after peaking in the late 1990s. But the United Nations AIDS agency warned in its yearly report Tuesday that governments will need to continue setting aside millions of dollars for AIDS treatment and prevention during the coming decades as patients live longer on AIDS medications.

BY admin

July 30 2008 11:00 PM ET

Fewer people are
dying of AIDS, more patients are on HIV medication, and
the global AIDS epidemic is stable after peaking in the late
1990s.

But the United
Nations AIDS agency warned in its yearly report Tuesday
that governments will need to continue setting aside
millions of dollars for AIDS treatment and prevention
during the coming decades as patients live longer on
AIDS medications.

''We've achieved
more in the past five years than in the previous 20
years,'' said Peter Piot, the agency's executive director.
''But if we relax now, it would be disastrous. It
would wipe out all of our previous investments.''

UNAIDS estimates
the number of AIDS case worldwide at 33 million; its
previous estimate of 40 million was revised last year
because of changes to how it counts cases.

Countries in
sub-Saharan Africa including South Africa, Botswana and
Swaziland remain the center of the AIDS epidemic. The region
has about 67% of all people infected with HIV and 72
percent of all AIDS deaths.

Outside
sub-Saharan Africa, AIDS mainly affects drug users, gay men
and sex workers.

Officials
estimate that 2 million people died from AIDS last year,
down from approximately 2.2 million in 2005.

The most dramatic
figures are in treatment: The number of people on AIDS
medication jumped by 10 times in the last six years, with
some 300,000 taking AIDS drugs in 2003 compared with
about 3 million in 2007. AIDS drugs have become much
cheaper and more available because of a variety of
government and private programs.

But millions of
others still do not have access to the drugs, and those
who do will need to remain on them to stay alive.

Still, millions
of new cases of HIV infection are reported every year,
the agency said. HIV is rising in several countries beyond
Africa, including China, Germany, Indonesia, Russia
and Britain, according to the report, which was issued
in advance of next week's international AIDS
conference in Mexico City.

The good news is
that the global number of new infections was down to
about 2.7 million people in 2007 from a peak of about 5
million new cases annually in the early 2000s.

However, the
report -- based on government data from 147 countries --
warned there could be future waves of infection. The agency
said it would be difficult to predict whether the AIDS
epidemic might spike again.

Experts said it's
too early to stop worrying about AIDS.

''I'm not sure we
will ever get to a point where we can say this is not a
public health problem,'' said James Chin, a clinical
professor of epidemiology at the University of
California, Berkeley.

Last week, the
U.S. government tripled the amount of money it will spend
on AIDS and other diseases around the world to $48 billion
over five years.

''The objective
of AIDS programs is to provide access to medication to
everyone who needs it,'' Chin said. ''Until that's
accomplished, this won't go away.''

The slow decline
of AIDS-related deaths is ''dismally disappointing,''
said Selina Lo, medical coordinator for Medecins Sans
Frontiere's Access to Essential Medicines campaign.
The group also is known as Doctors Without Borders.

She called it
evidence that strategies need to change.

Some experts said
health officials know what to do -- but still aren't
doing things like spending more money on prevention.

''We just don't
know how to get governments to do nice things for
junkies, sex workers, and gay boys,'' said Elizabeth Pisani,
a former UNAIDS epidemiologist who wrote a book about
the mistakes made in AIDS programs. (Maria Cheng, AP)

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