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Nearly 40 million infected with HIV worldwide

HIV infections are on the rise in all regions and in China the deadly virus is gradually spreading from high-risk groups to the general population, the United Nations said.
/ Source: Reuters

HIV infection is rising in every region of the world and most worryingly in countries like Uganda and Thailand, which had been heralded as success stories in the fight against AIDS, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

Nearly 40 million adults and children are infected worldwide. The most striking increases in new cases are in east Asia and in eastern Europe/central Asia, mainly due to drug use and unsafe sex, UNAIDS and the World Health Organization said.

Somebody is infected with the deadly HIV virus every 8 seconds, equivalent to 11,000 infections worldwide every day, while another 8,000 infected people die, the two agencies said in a joint annual report “2006 AIDS Epidemic Update.”

“Evidence shows again that the global epidemic is growing in all areas,” Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, told a news conference.

“Perhaps of even greater concern to me is the fact that in some countries that had known real results in the fight against AIDS — Uganda and some western countries — we see an increase in infection rates.”

Some 4.3 million people across the globe became infected with HIV this year, with a heavy concentration among young people, bringing the total number to an estimated 39.5 million.

Sub-Saharan Africa, which recorded 2.8 million new infections, still bears the brunt of the AIDS scourge, with 24.7 million people living with HIV, according to the report.

Of the 2.9 million global deaths from AIDS last year — which Piot said was the highest number recorded — 2.1 million occurred in Africa, the core area of the 25-year-old epidemic.

China’s drug-fuelled HIV epidemic, which accounts for about half the country’s estimated 650,000 infections, has reached “alarming proportions”, according to the report.

“With HIV spreading gradually from most-at-risk populations to the general population, the number of HIV infections in women is growing too,” it said of China.

Past success stories
Uganda is among countries seeing a resurgence of infection rates which were previously stable or declining, it said.

New data showed erratic condom use in Uganda and more men having sex with more than one partner, as well as evidence of rising HIV prevalence in some rural areas, according to Karen Stanecki, UNAIDS senior epidemiologist.

“In Thailand, another one of our past success stories, the number of new infections continues to drop but the epidemic is changing and countries such as Thailand and Uganda need to take into account the fact that epidemics do change over time,” Stanecki said.

In Thailand, a large percentage of new HIV infections occur in people considered “low risk”, she added, noting one third of new infections are among married women.

“In Thailand it’s a shift, it is not the same people who are infected today as who were infected 10 years ago. The sex industry, we can say is safe, but the government neglected grossly the problem among injecting drug-users,” Piot said.

“A country like Thailand which was really at the forefront of the fight against AIDS is lagging behind now when it comes to dealing with the problem in new populations as far as the HIV spread is concerned.”

Aid agencies called for a funding boost to provide access to anti-retroviral drug treatment, which only 1.65 million or 24 percent of the 6.8 million people in need are receiving.

“As the yearly ritual of the UNAIDS figures comes round again, leaders of the rich world should be reaching for their collective chequebooks,” said the London-based group ActionAid.

The report cited evidence of diminishing or stable HIV spread in most east African and west African countries, while epidemics still grow in Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland.

Piot told reporters: “There has been progress in the fight against AIDS, firstly in Africa, where it was also time after all the investments that have been made.”

In South Africa, where an estimated 5.5 million people have HIV, the epidemic continues unabated, suggesting the disease’s prevalence has not yet reached a plateau, the report said.

Piot welcomed South Africa’s recent pledge to do better against the disease, including using anti-retroviral drugs which its leaders had previously questioned.

In Asia, an estimated 8.6 million people are living with HIV, an increase of nearly one million, and 630,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses in the vast region this year.

India, where the epidemic appears to be stable or diminishing in some parts while growing modestly in others, has 5.7 million infected people, mainly through heterosexual sex.