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New focus on AIDS treatment saves lives, global report finds

A stronger focus on treating the AIDS virus, helped by countries pitching in more to help their own residents, is making it possible for the first time to hope it might be possible to end the pandemic of HIV, world health officials said on Wednesday.

New World Health Organization figures show that more than 34 million people are infected with the AIDS virus That’s close to a million more than a year ago, but it’s good news because it suggests that drug treatment is keeping people alive who would have died without treatment, officials for the United Nations AIDS agency UNAIDS said.

The report shows that eight million patients globally get the drug cocktails that keep them alive and healthy -- 54 percent of those who need it. And countries around the world have stepped up to pay more of the share of treating their citizens.

“It's time to start thinking about an end to AIDS,” UNAIDS director Michel Sidibe told NBC News in an interview in Washington, D.C., where the international conference on AIDS, held every two years, starts next week. "It's not just enough to think about this as a chronic disease that we can treat for 20 years, 40 years, 100 years."

One big success: 100,000 fewer children born infected, or being infected soon after birth, in 2011 compared to 2010. International aid efforts have focused on preventing mother to child transmission of the virus, usually by giving mother and child doses of HIV drugs. But in the past year, 330,000 children were infected by their mothers at or around birth.

The report shows that teens and adults aged 15 to 24 account for 40 percent of the 2.2 million new infections among adults in 2011 -- twice as many girls and women than men. AIDS killed 1.7 million people in 2011, compared to the peak of 2.3 million in 2005.

There is still no vaccine and no cure for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. But research towards a vaccine is showing progress and that treating patients can help keep them from infecting others. U.S. and global officials have embraced the idea of treating patients to help slow the spread of the pandemic -- and they also support giving these drugs to people at the very highest risk of infection to protect them. That includes people married to HIV patients, sex workers and some gay and bisexual men.

Cheaper generic drugs and the establishment of clinics in developing countries have really helped, WHO and UNAIDS said. "We have never been at this moment, where we are seeing huge drops in incidence," Ambassador Eric Goosby, the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, said in an interview. He said experts now understand that the AIDS virus has caused not one pandemic but a series of epidemics -- one among gay and bisexual mean, another among women infected by husbands and partners, another among injecting drug users, and so on. Each one must be tackled differently, but experts believe they now know how to do it.

“Every year, more than a million more people in low- and middle-income countries start taking antiretroviral drugs,” WHO’s director-general, Dr. Margaret Chan, said in a statement. “But for every person who starts treatment, another two are newly infected. Further scale-up and strategic use of the medicines could radically change this. We now have evidence that the same medicines we use to save lives and keep people healthy can also stop people from transmitting the virus and reduce the chance they will pass it to another person.”

The report suggests that programs would pay for themselves in 10 years in many countries, for instance with a stronger work force.

Sidibe said it’s also a big help that countries are taking financial and ethical responsibility for fighting the pandemic among their own citizens.

“Domestic investment now exceeds international investment for the first time,” Sidibe told a news briefing to launch the report. “We are tipping the dependency balance.”

Affected countries now invest $8.6 billion, more than the $8.2 billion given by donors, Sidibe said. Hard-hit South Africa invested $2 billion, the highest of any low-or middle-income nation, he said. Goosby said politicians around the world have signed on to battling the virus.

"I have been humbled by how important the political buy-in is," he said. In the United States, he said, it's a bipartisan issue. "I wasn't sure for a long time," he added, laughing.

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