The AIDS epidemic is still in an early phase, and the number of cases of HIV in the worst-affected countries is climbing higher than previously believed possible, according to a major UNAIDS report.
About 68 million people are expected to die because of AIDS in the 45 most affected countries between 2000 and 2020. This is more than five times the 13 million deaths due to AIDS in the past 20 years in these countries.
Theories that the epidemic might level off in severely affected nations are being disproved, the report says. At present, less than four per cent of those in need of antiretroviral treatment in the developing world have access to those drugs.
“Even if exceptionally effective prevention, treatment and care programmes take hold immediately, the scale of the crisis means the human and socio-economic toll will remain significant for generations,” the report says.
Some researchers had suggested that the AIDS epidemic might start to decline in the most devastated countries, as the number of people at risk decreased. But the latest figures do not support this, say the report’s authors. For example, in Zimbabwe, where one quarter of adults were HIV-positive in 1997, one third were infected by the end of 2001.
55 million deaths
The authors estimate that 55 million Africans will die prematurely because of AIDS by 2020. In Botswana, the country with the highest HIV rates in the world, almost 39 per cent of adults are living with HIV, up from 36 per cent two years ago.
They also warn that Asia is facing an “explosive epidemic” of HIV-AIDS that could rival the one devastating Africa. Asian governments and communities “are still not aware of the potential impact and consequences of the epidemic,” said Anthony Lisle, head of UNAIDS’ Southeast Asia and Pacific team. About one million people in the region were newly infected with the virus in 2001.
“The trend looks like the same as the beginning of the epidemic in Africa,” said Sandro Calvani, head of a UN working group on HIV/AIDS in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “One million infections means 3000 per day, or 120 per hour. These are shocking figures.”
In China, reported HIV infections rose nearly 70 per cent in just the first six months of 2001. Almost all cases of HIV/AIDS were previously transmitted through injecting drug use and unsafe blood practices. But the epidemic is now surging through heterosexual contact.
The HIV/AIDS 2002 report has been released in advance of the XIV International AIDS Conference in Barcelona. New Scientist will be filing daily reports starting from 8 July.
NewScientist.com, 2 Jul 2002