AIDS epidemic could be ‘wiped out by 2030’ after new infections and deaths fall by a third in a decade
The number of people dying from AIDS has fallen to a record low, leading scientists to declare the epidemic could end within 15 years.
Global AIDS-related deaths and new HIV infections have fallen by over a third in a decade, raising hopes of beating the killer disease, a United Nations report has declared.
AIDS-related deaths worldwide dropped to 1.5 million last year, from 1.7 million the year before.
That was the sharpest annual decline since the epidemic’s peak in 2004 and 2005 - and marked a 35 per cent drop from the 2.4 million deaths in both those years.
New infections also fell to 2.1 million last year, down 38 per cent compared to the 3.4 million in 2001.
The figures were released by the United Nations ahead of the 20th International AIDS Conference in Australia.
But with more than half of the 35 million people with HIV unaware they are infected, the battle is far from over however, said Michel Sidibe, head of UNAIDS - the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.
'If we are smart and scale up fast by 2020, we'll be on track to end the epidemic by 2030, so that AIDS is no longer a public health threat.
'We have a fragile window of opportunity, because what we do over the next five years will determine the next 15.'
The battle must focus squarely on the 15 countries which account for three quarters of new infections, UNAIDS says.
Nine are in Africa: Cameroon, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
But the spotlight is also on Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia, and the United States, where Black women, Hispanics and young gay man are most affected, AFP reports.
Globally, the report said 35 million people were living with the virus in 2013 - up from 34.6 million the previous year.
A major problem, said Mr Sidibe, is that 19 million do not know that they are HIV-positive. To beat the disease, testing must be more widely available - to enable an early diagnosis and better treatment.
The World Health Organization has called for greater efforts to treat gay men, transgender people, prison inmates, people who inject drugs and sex workers, who together account for about half of new HIV infections.
But experts say discrimination is a key factor. Nigeria criminalised homosexuality in January, and rights groups say people now fear seeking treatment, a test or even just information about HIV-AIDS, regardless of their sexual orientation.
'People live in fear and this has an impact on HIV programmes,' said Olumide Femi Makanjuola, of the Nigerian group Initiative for Human Rights.
'Since the law passed, the number of people coming to our centre has reduced.'
In Russia, where injecting drug users and their sexual partners are the key group affected by AIDS, stigmatisation and a dearth of needle exchange and rehab programmes are a key problem, the report found.
'If Russia doesn't change the way it is dealing with the AIDS epidemic, it will face a much more serious situation in the near future,' warned Luiz Loures, UNAIDS' programme chief.
Mr Sidibe praised South Africa, which a decade ago was still accused of being in denial about AIDS. Since then it has expanded testing and treatment massively.
'If all the countries could have the dynamic we're seeing now in South Africa in the fight against HIV-AIDS, I would be saying without any caution that we'll control this epidemic completely,' he said.
But Marcus Low, spokesman of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign, was more cautious. ‘We are very uncomfortable with the way they are talking about the end of AIDS. We think it is premature to be talking in those terms,’ he told AFP.
"We still have over 1,000 new infections every day in South Africa, it is still a crisis,’ he added.
Global efforts to increase the number of people getting access to life-saving anti-retroviral drugs have advanced fast, with 12.9 million now receiving treatment compared with 5.2 million in 2009, UNAIDS said.
While the hike is impressive, it falls short of a UN target announced two years ago to reach 15 million people by 2015—still less than half the number of sufferers worldwide.
Despite huge progress in funding for the battle against AIDS—which rose from $3.8 billion in 2002 to $19.1 billion in 2013—the UN is still short of its target of $22-24 billion by 2015.