WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of people killed by AIDS worldwide edged down for a second straight year in 2007 after rising for more than two decades, amid intensified global efforts to fight the disease, a U.N. agency said on Tuesday.
The AIDS epidemic is far from over, but appears to have leveled off with more people getting life-extending drugs and the number of new HIV infections falling in many places, UNAIDS said in a report.
Officials with Geneva-based UNAIDS and outside activists said much more needed to be done to beat this modern scourge.
Dr. Paul Zeitz, executive director of the Washington-based activist group Global AIDS Alliance, said the report showed the big increase in spending on prevention and treatment programs in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere had produced results.
“Based on this evidence, it’s time to ramp up funding from all sources — not to slow down or go on to other things. We’re on the path toward victory here. Let’s invest more,” he said.
Global AIDS deaths numbered about 2 million in 2007, down from 2.1 million in 2006, UNAIDS said. AIDS deaths peaked in 2005 at 2.2 million after a steady climb since the disease was first identified in the early 1980s, UNAIDS said.
“A six-fold increase in financing for HIV programs in low- and middle-income countries (from) 2001-2007 is beginning to bear fruit, as gains in lowering the number of AIDS deaths and preventing new infections are apparent in many countries,” according to the report issued before an international AIDS conference in Mexico next week.
“Progress remains uneven, however, and the epidemic’s future is still uncertain, underscoring the need for intensified action to move towards universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support,” the report read.
In 2007, about 33 million people were infected with human immunodeficiency virus, UNAIDS said. HIV is most often spread through sexual contact or injection drug use.
The total number of people living with HIV infections continues to inch higher as more people in hard-hit regions like sub-Saharan Africa, with two-thirds of all global cases, receive drugs that help them live longer, the report showed.
New HIV infection rates were basically the same in 2007 as in 2006 — about 2.7 million people, with a very small increase last year over the prior year, the agency said.
The report cited a big increase in the number of people receiving AIDS drugs in low- and middle-income countries, numbering about 3 million. But many more still lack access.
“There are still five new infections for every two people who are newly added on treatment. So clearly, we’re not pushing back the epidemic enough,” Dr. Paul De Lay of UNAIDS said.
Rates of new infections are rising in many countries, including China, Indonesia, Kenya, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Ukraine and Vietnam, and even rich nations such as Germany, Britain and Australia.
UNAIDS said its report used data from 147 countries, but De Lay said he was disappointed the United States did not provide its 2007 AIDS figures because U.S. officials continue to “refine” the numbers and will announce them soon.
Last week, the U.S. Congress passed a bill to triple spending on a program to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in Africa and other parts of the world, with President George W. Bush scheduled to sign it into law this week.
It calls for $48 billion over the next five years.
The Black AIDS Institute activist group issued a report saying the U.S. government had neglected the epidemic among black Americans even as it fights the disease overseas.
Editing by Maggie Fox and Peter Cooney