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Former UN AIDS Envoy Says Numbers Down But Fight Against Disease Still Urgent


A former United Nations Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis warns that revised UNAIDS HIV statistics should not be seen as a signal that the fight against the pandemic can be relaxed. He says that while the actual figures could be even lower than those published earlier this month, it is only a statistical adjustment and more needs to be done to combat the disease. From London, Tendai Maphosa has more.

In its latest report, UNAIDS cut the number of infections worldwide to about 33 million, down from its estimated 39.5 million in 2006. Sub-Saharan Africa remains the hardest hit by the virus.

Addressing health editors in London Friday, Stephen Lewis said the new numbers are much closer to the truth and could still be too high. Lewis said that for years the United Nations ignored expert advice that the figures were too high. He said by focusing now on what he called a dramatic drop in numbers, attention could be diverted from the real issues .

Lewis said action rather than numbers is urgent.

"This is an apocalypse for Africa, 22.5 million people infected, 61 percent of them are women, 68 percent of all the infections in the world, 76 percent of the deaths are deaths in Africa, over eleven million orphans," he said. "This is a continuing nightmare for the southern part of the continent, and therefore we shouldn't have to deal with the business of arithmetic we should be keeping our focus on the human tragedy.

VOA asked Lewis, the United Nations Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa from 2001 to 2006, why he did not speak up during his time at the U.N. Lewis said while he struggled on issues such as the proper response to the needs of women and orphans and on treatment and prevention, dealing with figures was difficult because he is not an expert on data collection.

"It's very hard for anyone including the envoy to change the collection of data, and I think UNAIDS should have listened more carefully to its critics," said Lewis. "It was pretty obvious to people early on that if you took prevalence rate based on urban ante-natal clinic surveys that it wouldn't give you a good representative read on the country as a whole, certainly it wouldn't give you a read on the rural areas of the country and there were other factors that had to be taken into account so that then when UNAIDS started doing what we call population based random surveys doing a lot of households around the country they found very different levels of prevalence."

"The levels were always less than they had identified before, so they had to revise all of their figures and of course the revision turned out to be very dramatic. It dropped by seven million in one year, and that kind of statistical adjustment throws people, confuses people and undermines the credibility of the U.N., I think," he added.

Lewis is currently co-director of AIDS Free World, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization. He says the United Nations has not done all that it can, given its reach, and that the U.N. secretary-general must provide leadership.

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