LONDON (Reuters) - An estimated 33.3 million people worldwide have the HIV virus that causes AIDS, but the global health community is starting to slow down and even turn the epidemic around, a United Nations report said on Tuesday.
The total number of HIV-infected people in 2009 was down slightly from the previous year’s 33.4 million and at least 56 countries have either stabilized or achieved significant declines in rates of new HIV infections.
Yet while more than 5 million of those who need life-saving AIDS drugs are getting them, around two-thirds of the 15 million people in poorer countries who need them cannot get them. Marginalized groups like drug users and sex workers are far less likely to get help than others, according to the 2010 global update by the Joint U.N. Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
“For the first time, we can say that we are breaking the trajectory of the AIDS epidemic. We have halted and begun to reverse the epidemic. Fewer people are becoming infected with HIV and fewer people are dying from AIDS,” UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe said as the report was released.
Since the beginning of the epidemic in the 1980s, more than 60 million people have been infected with HIV and nearly 30 million have died of HIV-related causes.
The human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS can be controlled with cocktails of drugs, but there is no cure.
The UNAIDS report found that new HIV infections have reduced by nearly 20 percent in the past 10 years, and among young people in 15 of the most severely affected countries, rates of HIV have fallen by more than 25 percent as the young adopt safer sexual practices.
There are still two new HIV infections for every one person starting HIV treatment.
“Just a few years ago, there were five new infections for every two people starting treatment,” Sidibe said in a telephone interview. “We are closing the gap between prevention and treatment.”
But he stressed the numbers did not mean the world could declare “mission accomplished” on tackling AIDS.
He said he was worried about a slowdown in growth of funds to fight AIDS, with international donor investment flattening for the first time in 2009, and about significant barriers for marginalized groups such as drug users in getting the HIV prevention and care services they need.
UNAIDS said there was an estimated $15.9 billion available for the global AIDS response in 2009, $10 billion short of the estimated need.
“Demand is outstripping supply. Stigma, discrimination and bad laws continue to place roadblocks for people living with HIV and people on the margins,” Sidibe said.
The report found there are 10 million people still in need of HIV/AIDS treatment who do not have access to it. It also found that one in four AIDS deaths is caused by tuberculosis, a preventable and curable disease.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the region of the world hardest hit by HIV and AIDS, there were 1.3 million AIDS-related deaths in 2009 and 1.8 million people became newly infected with HIV.
Eric Goosby, the global AIDS coordinator for U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, said the report was “welcome news” to those fighting the AIDS epidemic.
“It demonstrates that success can be achieved in the battle against AIDS,” he said in a statement. But he too added that the fight was “far from over.”
Editing by Janet Lawrence