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AIDS Epidemic Continues to Spread

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS also found that women now comprise 50 percent of those infected with HIV.

“For me what is most striking is that for the first time women comprise 50 percent of the global epidemic,” Peter Piot, the head of UNAIDS, told Reuters Tuesday. “In Africa 58 percent of all people living with HIV are women. The face of AIDS is becoming the face of young women.”

Just twenty years after the disease was first discovered among homosexual white men, AIDS continues to ravage southern Africa, where it is intensifying the problems of drought and famine.

“Generally, households [in southern Africa] are able to achieve food security when they can produce sufficient amounts of nutritious food, earn enough cash income to purchase food, sell or barter assets for food in hard times, and rely on social support networks for assistance. The HIV/AIDS epidemic is eroding each of these coping methods. It reduces households’ capacities to produce and purchase food, depletes their assets, and exhausts social safety nets,” the report says.

Africa, with 29.4 million people living with HIV/AIDS, is the region most affected by the disease. Eastern Europe and Central Asia, with 1.2 million cases, has the fastest growing epidemic. However, the report says, Asia — particularly China and India — are expected to see significant jumps in AIDS cases.

An estimated 1 million people in China are infected with HIV, and unless effective responses take hold, the number could reach 10 million people by the end of this decade, the report said.

The high populations of many Asian nations blur the picture of a virus that killed nearly 500,000 people in the Asia-Pacific region last year. The report also found that as many as 11 million may be infected by the end of the decade.

Werasit Sittitrai, UNAIDS’ director for project development, said that although only three countries in the region had HIV infection rates of more than one percent — Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia — in parts of India and China the incidence of HIV is as high as 10 to 20 percent.

Amid the report’s many bleak findings, there is evidence that prevention efforts can succeed. In South Africa, the HIV infection prevalence rate among pregnant women under 20 years old fell to 15.2 percent in 2001 from 21 percent in 1998. The report also highlighted a similar decline in the virus among young inner-city women in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

“For the first time in years we have solid evidence that prevention can work even in the poorest countries,” Piot told Reuters.

“There is far more money going into HIV activities than before. It is still not enough, but at least there is progress there,” Piot said. “That is what I would consider the good news part.”

Meanwhile, drug companies have slashed the price of anti-AIDS drugs in countries like Botswana and Nigeria. However, only a small number of people, mostly in the developed world, are receiving those drugs.

“The price reductions are real, but even at a dollar a day someone has to pay for it. We are focusing on training of physicians and nurses and finding the money for it. For the poorest countries it will only be possible if money comes from the outside,” he said.

UNAIDS calculates that by 2007 the world will have to find about $15 billion a year to successfully treat and combat AIDS in low- and middle-income countries.

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