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UNAIDS/WHO Lower Global HIV/AIDS Estimates

Armen Hareyan's picture

UNAIDS and World Health Organization have lowered their estimates of how many people are living with HIV/AIDS worldwide, Reuters/New York Timesreports. According to the report, which is scheduled for release thisweek, about 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS,compared with an estimate of nearly 40 million in 2006. The U.N. bodiessaid that better methods of data collection and increased dataavailability from countries show that HIV/AIDS is not quite aswidespread as previously thought (Reuters/New York Times,11/20). The report also found that about 2.5 million people will becomenewly infected with HIV this year, a 40% decrease from last year'sestimate primarily because of methodological changes used to derivethese estimates but also to more recent reductions in incidence, the Los Angeles Times reports (Chong/Maugh, Los Angeles Times,11/20). New cases peaked in the late 1990s and have been decliningsince 2001 -- when it is estimated that about 2.2 million people insub-Saharan Africa contracted HIV, compared with an estimated 1.7million in the region this year -- the report says.

Inaddition, the report found that the number of AIDS-related deaths havedeclined somewhat since 2005 in part because access to antiretroviraldrugs has expanded. The report estimated that about 2.1 million peopleworldwide will die of AIDS-related causes in 2007 (Donnelly, Boston Globe,11/20). Although the number of new cases has decreased, the number ofpeople worldwide living with HIV/AIDS has increased as people areliving longer with HIV, new infections are continuing, and there isgeneral population growth, the study says. The percentage of adultsworldwide living with HIV/AIDS has remained constant at about 0.8%,according to the study (McNeil, New York Times, 11/20).

According to the Los Angeles Times,although the number of new cases has declined in some countries inEastern and Western Africa because of widespread changes in sexualbehavior, the "bulk of the apparent decrease" is because of improvedsampling methods. Earlier estimates often were taken from pregnantwomen at prenatal clinics who were more likely to live in urban areasand be sexually active than women in the general population (Los Angeles Times,11/20). The new data were taken from national population estimates in30 countries with high HIV prevalence that involved family interviewsand blood tests, the Wall Street Journal reports (Chase, Wall Street Journal, 11/20).

The report also says that revised estimates for India, released earlier this year, accounted for a significant part of the decrease inglobal numbers. "The single biggest reason for this reduction was theintensive exercise to access India's HIV epidemic, which resulted inmajor revision of that country's estimates," the report says. India'srevisions, as well as those in five other countries, together accountedfor 70% of downward change in the prevalence estimate between lastyear's published figure and this year's (Reuters/New York Times, 11/20).

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Accordingto Paul DeLay -- director of evidence, monitoring and policy for UNAIDS-- another significant reason for the decrease in new cases is adecrease in the number of sex partners in high-prevalence areas inSouthern Africa. DeLay added that consistent condom use among high-riskgroups, including commercial sex workers; treatment of sexuallytransmitted infections; and male circumcision also contributed to thedecline.


DeLay said that experts are"seeing" the "effect" of program interventions designed to fight thespread of HIV. "In some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the evidence ispretty convincing that the epidemic has turned," DeLay said, adding,"We have up to five years of data. In other areas, we are just startingto see a change with the numbers coming down" (Boston Globe, 11/20).

Despitethe decrease in figures, the report still shows that the HIV/AIDSpandemic is widespread and that efforts to fight the disease should beincreased, UNAIDS officials said. "These improved data present us witha clearer picture of the AIDS epidemic, one that reveals bothchallenges and opportunities," UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piotsaid in a statement. He added, "Unquestionably, we are beginning to seea return on investment -- new HIV infections and mortality aredeclining and the prevalence of HIV leveling. But with more than 6,800new infections and over 5,700 deaths each day due to AIDS, we mustexpand our efforts in order to significantly reduce the impact of AIDSworldwide" (Reuters/New York Times, 11/20).

James Chin of the University of California-Berkeleysaid UNAIDS and WHO have "been overemphasizing and exaggerating" theimpact of the virus "in an effort" to increase global funding to fightthe disease. "It's getting closer to what it ought to be, but it'sstill high," Chin said. DeLay said it was "absurd" to think the datahad been exaggerated, adding that it would "technically impossible tosomehow rig the numbers" (Los Angeles Times, 11/20). U.N.officials said the revised data stem from better measurements ratherthan from shifts in the epidemic, adding that they continually seek toimprove monitoring of the pandemic (Timberg, Washington Post, 11/20).

Some HIV/AIDS advocates expressed concern that the new data will lead to a decrease in global funding to fight the virus (New York Times, 11/20). Paul Zeitz, executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance,said that although the "overall prevalence of AIDS" has stabilized, theglobal health community is "still seeing millions of new infections"(Cheng, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 11/19). Zeitz added that "huge resources" are needed "to win the battle" against HIV/AIDS (New York Times, 11/20).

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