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On 20th anniversary of first AIDS cases, UN says epidemic is still in early stages

On 20th anniversary of first AIDS cases, UN says epidemic is still in early stages

On the twentieth anniversary of the first published report on AIDS, United Nations experts warned today that in many countries the epidemic was still in its early stages.

"HIV is characterized by a relatively long gap between infection and major illness," said Dr. Peter Piot, Executive Director of the UN's Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). "Its natural dynamic is to show up first among those at heightened risk, while at the same time it gradually moves across the whole of the sexually active population."

The first official documentation of the disease that came to be known as AIDS was made on 5 June 1981 in a nine-paragraph report by the US Centers for Disease Control. The report catalogued five cases.

At the time, no one could have predicted the devastating effects to come. "It was inconceivable that AIDS would spread so rapidly," said Dr. Piot, "that within the first 20 years it would infect 58 million people, killing 22 million of them."

Today, the epidemic has spread rapidly to all parts of the globe and has shifted in emphasis. "It is a brief history of evolving understandings and shifting paradigms from a medical curiosity to a complex health issue with major development, political and human security dimensions," said Dr. Piot.

The UN estimates that around the world, 36.1 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, the vast majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa, where 3.8 million people became newly infected just last year. That region is also host to over 90 per cent of the world's 10.4 million AIDS orphans.

Demonstrating international commitment to fight the epidemic, world leaders will gather at UN Headquarters in New York from 25 to 27 June to attend the General Assembly's special session on HIV/AIDS, which is expected to adopt a concrete global action plan.