The number of people worldwide infected with HIV, the deadly virus that causes AIDS, increased in 2001, despite stepped up prevention efforts. The last international AIDS conference was held in June 2000 in Durban, South Africa, mostly to get the word out about the deadly virus's devastating impact on the Third World. Attendees to the Africa gathering stressed the importance of HIV prevention efforts in economically disadvantaged countries, and delegates returned home with a renewed sense of mission.
However, the numbers issued at the end of 2001 by the United Nations suggest that prevention measures still have a long way to go. The U.N. Program on AIDS estimated that 40 million people around the globe are now living with HIV, up from 37 million in 2000. The U.N. said the majority of new infections occurred among people between the ages of 15 and 24, with young women the most vulnerable.
Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be the hardest hit region with nearly three-fourths of the world's HIV-positive individuals. Peter Piot, head of the U.N. Program on AIDS says despite some gains, the epidemic continues to spread rapidly throughout Africa. "There were 3.4 million new infections this year. This is down from 3.8 (million) last year. That's definitely not a way to cry victory," he says. "It's something that we've been expecting that there would be a slowing down of the spread of HIV as evidenced by continuing decreasing incidence rates in Uganda, also in Zambia, in Tanzania, in Kenya."
While the most people living with AIDS are in Africa, the greatest number of new HIV cases are in Eastern Europe. Dr. Piot says last year health authorities in the region reported 250,000 new cases in 2001. "Russia itself we believe, has between 600,000 and 800,000 people living with HIV. A figure that has doubled in a year."
Similarly, throughout Asia, the number of individuals reportedly infected with HIV is growing by leaps and bounds, with an estimated one million new cases in China alone.
U.N. AIDS' Peter Piot says the apparently low HIV prevalence rates of one to two percent in some of the world's most populous countries, such as India, are deceptive. He says the figures mask some localized epidemics, and countries should work to prevent further spread, rather than take comfort in the low numbers.
In an effort to give a shot in the arm to global AIDS prevention efforts, the U.N. in June announced the formation of a fund to pay for education and treatment programs in the hardest hit countries. So far, $1.6 billion has been raised. The Global Fund is expected to begin releasing money by the end of January.
On the scientific front, intense efforts continued this past year to develop a vaccine that would prevent the spread of HIV. A number of vaccine candidates are being field tested in Africa and Asia. But Helene Gayle of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which supports vaccine development, says an effective drug is still a number of years away. "And we can all pick numbers out of the air, but conservatively [it'll] probably [be] about ten years before we have what we call a first generation vaccine, which is likely not to be a hundred percent or anywhere near a hundred percent effective," says Ms. Gayle.
Significant progress was made in 2001 in getting discounted or generic anti-retroviral drugs to African countries and other nations hard hit by AIDS.
And in what may turn out to be a significant development, American researchers showed that people infected with the AIDS virus can cut their dose of anti-retroviral drugs in half without apparent harm. If proved in other studies, so-called structured intermittent therapy could reduce side effects and potentially make anti-retroviral drugs more accessible to people in poor countries.
Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001