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AIDS epidemic shows no signs of levelling off, UN report warns

AIDS epidemic shows no signs of levelling off, UN report warns

The number of people suffering from HIV/AIDS is climbing faster than expected in the worst affected countries and spreading rapidly to new groups in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe, according to a new United Nations report released today.

"From a historical perspective, it's now clear that we're only at the beginning of this epidemic, which is already the largest epidemic in human history," Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), told a press conference held at UN Headquarters in New York to launch the study, Report on the Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic.

The report cautions that as the disease continues its relentless spread, theories that a decline in the number of people at risk in countries with high rates of the disease might cause it to "level off" are being discounted.

"In spite of assumptions by scientists that this disease would soon reach some natural saturation level, we're not there yet," said Dr. Piot.

In Botswana, for example, which has the highest HIV infection rate in the world, almost 39 per cent of adults now live with the disease, up from 36 per cent two years ago.

AIDS will kill 68 million people in the 45 most affected countries between 2000 and 2020, over five times more than the 13 million it struck down during the previous two decades.

In addition, HIV has moved into areas where it previously seemed stable or was confined to high-risk groups, especially in China, Indonesia, the Russian Federation and Eastern Europe and Western and Central Africa, the report says.

Young people are particularly at risk, with about half of all new adult infections among people aged 15-24. Almost 12 million young people are now living with HIV and about 6,000 more become infected every day.

As the epidemic mounts, drugs to treat it remain scarce in the developing world. Of six million people in developing countries needing antiretroviral drug therapy, less than 4 per cent were receiving it by the end of 2001.

In high-income countries, where an estimated 500,000 people were receiving antiretroviral treatment in 2001, 125,000 people died of AIDS. In Africa, where only 30,000 of the 28.5 million people infected were receiving antiretroviral treatment, AIDS killed 2.2 million people.

"Although real progress has been made in lowering the price of antiretroviral therapy in the developing world, far greater action is needed by both governments and the private sector to ensure that treatment reaches those in greatest need," Dr. Piot stressed.

Donor funding to fight the epidemic has risen by six times since 1998, but still falls short of the immense need. By UNAIDS estimates, commitments from governments, international organizations and the private sector will provide about $3 billion in 2002, but low and middle-income countries will need $10 billion per year to combat the epidemic by 2005.