U.N. Hits AIDS Treatment Target Two Years Late

By admin

Originally published on Advocate.com June 03 2008 12:00 AM ET

In 2003, the
World Health Organization began its ambitious ''3 by 5''
initiative to treat AIDS, promising to put 3 million
infected people worldwide on antiretroviral drugs
within two years.

According to a
report issued on Monday, they finally succeeded last year.

Despite missing
their deadline, officials were upbeat. ''If every U.N.
health target was met just two years late, the world would
be a much better place,'' said Dr. Kevin De Cock,
director of WHO's AIDS department.

In the last four
years, the number of people on anti-AIDS drugs has
increased by seven and a half times, WHO, UNICEF, and UNAIDS
said. In Africa, the region hardest hit by AIDS, more
than 2 million people are now receiving the lifesaving
antiretrovirals. About 100,000 were on the drugs in

''A lot of people
said we would never get to 3 million,'' said Paul
Zeitz, executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance, an
advocacy group in Washington D.C. ''This proves that
it is possible to get treatment out, even in the
hardest-to-reach places.''

Still, only 31%
of people worldwide who need antiretrovirals receive
them. And more people get infected every year than are put
on treatment. The U.N. estimates that there are about
33 million people living with HIV and that there were
roughly 2.5 million new infections last year.

''There are
millions of people still standing in line waiting to get
therapy,'' De Cock said. One of the biggest obstacles is
that many people with HIV aren't aware of their

Diagnosing HIV
and treating patients remains a problem even in rich
countries. In the United States, only 55% of people who
require AIDS drugs get them.

The numbers of
people needing antiretrovirals may change if WHO's
treatment guidelines change, or if there are new estimates
of the numbers of people infected.

De Cock said WHO
may consider recommending that people with HIV receive
antiretrovirals earlier. That would mean an instant jump in
the numbers of people needing the drugs, as more
people would automatically qualify.

The numbers might
also fluctuate if there are new estimates of how many
people have HIV. Last year, the estimated number of infected
people was slashed from nearly 40 million to 33

''These numbers
are the best we've got, but they're not necessarily that
good because they may have to be revised depending on newer
data,'' said James Chin, a clinical professor of
epidemiology at the University of California at
Berkeley. WHO's report is based largely on self-reported
information from 143 governments.

Now that WHO's
treatment target has been met, some experts worry that the
interest in fighting AIDS will evaporate.

In 2005, leaders
of the Group of Eight industrialized nations vowed to
invest more in AIDS treatment. ''Wealthy nations like the
U.K., Japan, and France have all backed off and have
not shown any interest in reaffirming the goal of
universal access,'' Zeitz said.

However, Britain
announced Monday it intends to spend nearly $12 billion
over the next seven years on responding to AIDS in poor

WHO has no plans
to launch any future AIDS treatment initiatives like ''3
by 5'', according to De Cock. To curb the epidemic, WHO and
partners are calling for preventive measures including
more HIV testing and male circumcision, which can cut
men's chances of catching HIV by up 60%.

Because anti-AIDS
drugs must be taken for life, the price of fighting
AIDS will almost certainly rise in the future, as the
emergence of drug-resistant strains will require more
expensive drugs. WHO estimates that to meet treatment
needs, funding will have to more than quadruple to $35
billion in 2010.

''We are on a
treadmill now,'' said David Ross, a professor of
epidemiology and public health at London's School of Hygiene
and Tropical Medicine. ''It would be a major disaster
and totally irresponsible if the funds dried up and we
abandoned those people now dependent on
antiretrovirals.'' (Maria Cheng, AP)