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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

AIDS Epidemic Far From Over Says UN

A new report by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to be released today, Tuesday 10th June, at UN headquarters in New York, says that the global fight against HIV/AIDS is making significant progress, but officials said in a press conference yesterday that the global epidemic is far from over.

Although considerable progress has been made, it is too early to celebrate, was the overall tone of the meeting between UN officials and the press at UN headquarters in New York yesterday, where the Secretary-General is today presenting the report (document A/62/780) at the opening session of the General Assembly's high-level meeting on HIV/AIDS.

"The report highlights real results," Michel Kazatchkine, Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, told journalists.

There has been a 15-fold increase since 2001 in the number of people receiving life saving antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, from under 200,000 to 3 million, including 2 million in Africa, says the report. In 2001, more than half of the people in receipt of ARV treatment were in Brazil, the only developing country that was offering free ARV therapy to its people.

The report also says that the global rate of new infections has come down, and pregnant women living with HIV are now increasingly able to obtain drug therapy that stops the virus passing from mother to child, said Kazatchkine. At the end of 2007, around one third of pregnant women in low and middle income countries who are living with HIV accessed ARV therapy, and 200,000 children living with HIV in developing nations were also being treated, a huge leap of 80,000 from the year before.

But the UN officials tempered their optimism with a reminder of what still remains to be accomplished.

6,000 people die every day from HIV/AIDS, and another 7,000 become infected, "that's a crisis by any standard", said Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

"The AIDS epidemic is far from over," said Piot, in spite of the fact that resources to fight HIV/AIDS had exceeded the targets set in the Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS, adopted by the General Assembly in 2001. The target was 7 billion dollars by 2005, and last year the global mobilization of HIV/AIDS resources came to 10 billion dollars.

"Despite the progress," said Kazatchkine, "only 30 per cent, or close to one third, of the people we believe to be in need of antiretroviral treatment access ARV therapy currently".

One of the problems, says the report, is that the rate at which access to essential treatment is expanding is not keeping up with the rate of expansion of the epidemic. For instance, although one million more people started ARV treatment in 2007, the rate of new infections in that year was 2.5 million people.

The report estimates there are 33.2 million people worldwide living with HIV, as of December 2007. Although the global rate of new infections has fallen, a number of countries are seeing rising rates of new infections, including China, Indonesia, Russia and Ukraine, and some European Union and North American countries.

AIDS remains the leading cause of death in Africa, and the overall rate of infection among women is rising more rapidly than among men.

Other reasons why ARV therapy does not reach the people who need it are weak healthcare systems, critical shortages in skills, and not knowing for sure what funds will be available in the long term, said Kazatchkine.

Kazatchkine said the Global Fund enabled over 50 per cent of the people on ARV therapy to get their treatment, and it also funded over two thirds of the international fight against malaria and tuberculosis.

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was officially set up by the heads of state at the 2001 G8 summit, along lines suggested by two Harvard academics urging a step up in the world's commitment to fighting these devastating diseases.

Last year there was a funding gap of around 7 billion dollars, said Kazatchkine. 17 billion was needed in order for all the people who needed ARV therapy to get it, but only 10 billion was forthcoming. He told reporters that while some countries like the United Kingdom had pledged money to the Global Fund through to 2014, this was not the norm, and more long term funds were needed, such as through official development assistance (ODA), and other private and public funding channels.

Kazatchkine went on to explain that "there will always be a gap", but he hoped this will get narrower. He said we have to be careful, he did not want 2008 to be the year when nations turn and say, "You're doing alright with the AIDS epidemic. Now we have to focus on something else".

"We need a very sustained effort and we still need increased resources," urged Kazatchkine.

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