As the United Nations marks World AIDS Day this year (Dec. 1) it is celebrating a major milestone: a drop in the number of AIDS-related deaths around the world. But funding for continued AIDS research and treatment is also dropping for the first time in the 30-year old epidemic, and health experts warn that this trend must be reversed if the spread of the disease is to be halted.
A new United Nations report says the number of people worldwide becoming infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has dropped by 21 percent since the global epidemic peaked in 1997. Those new infections have plateaued at about 2.7 million cases per year.
The report says 34 million people worldwide are living with HIV due to improved access to drug treatments.
Michel Sidibe, executive director of the joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, says 2011 has been a milestone year in the global fight against AIDS.
"You know, for us this year is a game-changing year. It is the first time that the science was telling us, if we put people on treatment early, we can reduce the new infection rate by ninety-six percent. So, we are dropping this false dichotomy between prevention and treatment," Sidibe said.
Timely drug therapies have slowed the pace of HIV deaths and new infections, and helped avert an estimated 700,000 AIDS-related deaths.
But there are still major challenges ahead, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the pioneers in the fight to stop the AIDS epidemic.
“The more people you get on therapy, the earlier you diagnose it, the less deaths you will see, that’s good news. The sobering news is we still have a long way to go. We still don’t have the epidemic under control,” Fauci said.
The U.N. data show that in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, more than a million people are still dying of the disease every year.
In these HIV hot zones, experts agree that early intervention with antiretroviral drugs can save lives and slow transmission rates. But Dr. Fauci says pairing this treatment with proven prevention strategies is key to getting the epidemic under control.
"The fact that you put people on treatment, get their viral load to a level that’s low enough, then it is extremely unlikely that those people will transmit the infection to their uninfected sexual partner. So, if you combine all of the prevention modalities and superimpose upon that treatment of more and more people, then you could start to see some significant downturn in the pandemic,” Fauci said.
Funding is also essential to continued research on an HIV vaccine and other prevention and treatment efforts. But humanitarian organizations report that donor support has dropped for the first time, from 7.6 billion dollars in 2009 to 6.9 billion dollars in 2010. Sidibe says U.N. member countries have promised to fill the gap, and he's hopeful they will:
“I think this report is telling us that it's just not time to pull out. It is time to invest in AIDS because the results are there," Sidibe said.
The UNAIDS director says those investments can turn the tide, and mark the beginning of the end of the AIDS pandemic.