Women make up nearly half of the 37.2 million adults living with HIV and in sub-Saharan Africa the proportion rises to almost 60 percent, according to a UN report released on Tuesday.
“Increasingly the face of AIDS is young and female,” said Dr Kathleen Cravero, deputy executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
In every region of the globe, the number of women infected with the deadly virus has risen during the past two years. East Asia had the highest jump with 56 percent, followed by Eastern Europe and Central Asia with 48 percent.
In sub-Saharan Africa, three-quarters of all 15-24 year olds living with HIV are female.
“Young women are almost an endangered species in southern Africa from AIDS for several reasons,” Cravero told Reuters.
Many women have no access to education or jobs. They are often economically dependent on men and may not have the power to resist sex or ask their husband or partner to use a condom.
“In some places, the main HIV risk factor for a woman is the fact that she is faithful to a husband with previous or current sex partners,” the report said.
Teenage girls are acquiring the virus at a younger age and from older men. Violence against women also makes them more vulnerable to infection.
The annual report by UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation (WHO), released ahead of World AIDS Day on December 1, shows the number of adults and children living with HIV reached its highest level ever in 2004 with an estimated 39.4 million, compared to about 36.6 million two years ago.
Over 3 million people died of the illness this year.
New infections climbed by nearly 50 percent since 2002 in East Asia, mainly because of growing epidemics in China, Indonesia and Vietnam.
In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, there has been a 40 percent jump in the past two years, fuelled by the growing number of infections in the Russian Federation and Ukraine.
But sub-Saharan Africa, where 25.4 million people are infected with the virus, is the worst affected region of the world. The epidemic appears to have stabilised in the region, which means an equal number of people are being newly infected with and dying of AIDS.
“In the countries of southern Africa, overall, there is a 25 percent prevalence rate,” said Cravero.
Sixty-four percent of all HIV positive people worldwide and 76 percent of all women with the virus are in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Caribbean, with an average adult HIV prevalence rate of 2.3 percent, is the second most affected region in the world.
“The epidemic is obviously still ahead of us because we are seeing 39.4 million people (living with HIV),” Cravero said.
Although spending to battle HIV/AIDS has almost tripled from $2.1 billion in 2001 to $6.1 billion this year, less than one in five people in low and middle-income countries has access to HIV prevention services.
As many as 6 million people need HIV treatment.
“Universal access to treatment for everyone who needs it is a goal and it is a legitimate goal that everyone can push for,” Cravero added.
The WHO has launched a “3 by 5” programme to get three million people on treatment by the end of 2005. An estimated 440,000 people in the developing world had access to life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs by June 2004.
“We are working with the WHO to go for that goal with as much gusto as we can possibly get,” she added.