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WHO Calls AIDS World's  Most Urgent Health Challenge - 2004-05-11


A World Health Organization (WHO) report says tackling HIV/AIDS is the world's most urgent public health challenge.

The WHO says HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among people aged 15-to-59 years worldwide. It has killed more than 20 million people and between 34 million and 46 million are now living with the disease.

Last year, 3 million people died of AIDS and another 5 million became infected with HIV.

According to the World Health Organization, unprotected sexual intercourse between men and women is the predominant mode of HIV transmission. The average time-lag between infection with HIV and the onset of AIDS is from nine to 11 years in the absence of treatment.

Countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia are experiencing growing epidemics, driven mainly by injecting drug use, and to a lesser extent, by unsafe sex among young people.

In the United States, 30,000 to 40,000 new infections occur every year, with African-Americans and Hispanics the most affected. The report adds that nearly six million people in developing countries need anti-retroviral therapy, but only about 400,000 of them received it last year.

To remedy this situation, the WHO has launched a plan to provide anti-retroviral therapy to 3 million people by the end of 2005. Funds for the campaign are coming in from many sources.

Dr. Richard Feachem, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said that funding is no longer a problem. ?So, the availability of finance is no longer the binding constraint in doing what we need to do around the world,? he said. ?Large amounts of new finance are available. And the cost of the drug is no longer the binding constraint. As a result of the deal between the Global Fund and the Clinton Foundation and the work that WHO and U.N.-AIDS have done over many years on drug prices, fixed-dose combinations of anti-retroviral drugs are now available for prices of around $150 a year, which is an extreme reduction as compared to a few-years ago.?

The WHO report points out that, despite high hopes 20 years ago for an HIV vaccine, the world is still waiting and Dr. Peter Piot, head of U.N.-AIDS warns against over-optimism.

?There is no vaccine, no effective vaccine, against HIV at the moment,? he noted. ?Only one product has been evaluated for its effectiveness in people and it turned out that it was not protective. There is another trial that is being concluded in Thailand with a similar product, but we do not expect that this will be giving any protective effect. So what is happening? The good news is that far more investments are being made today in HIV vaccine research than, let us say, 10 years ago. There is a renewed interest also coming from industry, from the Gates Foundation and from the International Aids Vaccine Initiative, but I think it is very hazardous to make any predictions.?

He said that the minimum time needed to develop a vaccine is five years, but it could be 20.

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