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AIDS Continues to Grow at Rapid Pace

December 1st is World AIDS Day. But for tens of millions of people suffering the devastating effects of the illness, every day is a stark reminder of HIV, the lethal virus that causes AIDS. A report issued Tuesday by UNAIDS, the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, concludes the global pandemic is growing much faster than predicted.

Five million people worldwide were newly infected with HIV last year, making a total of more than 36-million people living with HIV/AIDS by the end of 1999. That's twice as many people as international public health officials predicted in 1991 would be living with HIV/AIDS by the turn of the century. AIDS experts including UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot, said there was no way to foretell a decade ago, how social factors such as prostitution, would contribute to one of the biggest pandemics of all time. "Since the beginning of the epidemic nearly 22 million people have died of AIDS, which is more than what was thought from the other big epidemic in the 20th century, and that's the Spanish flu," said Piot.

In a teleconference with reporters from Berlin, Doctor Piot said the number of new HIV infections is spreading like wildfire in Eastern Europe.

"These figures are really alarming. Whereas a year ago 130-thousand people were estimated to be infected in Russia. Today, there are 300-thousand," said Piot. "So, there are more new infections in Russia this year than in all previous years combined. And something similar is happening in smaller countries of the region, namely Estonia and Uzbekistan, but in smaller in smaller numbers."

Doctor Piot said the Eastern European HIV epidemic is fueled mostly by drug users, who spread the virus through hypodermic needle sharing.

In Africa, the situation remains grim, with more than 90 percent of the world's HIV/AIDS cases in sub-Saharan countries. According to the U.N. report, Botswana leads the world in the number of people living with HIV/AIDS. An estimated 35 percent of Botswana's adult population is infected with the deadly AIDS virus. But there is a glimmer of hope in Africa, according to UNAID's Peter Piot.

"For the first time we can report somewhat fewer cases of HIV infection than the year before, which may be a sign of some stabilization due to, on the one hand, to prevention efforts in countries like Uganda and Zambia," said Piot. "(On the other hand,) We see a stabilization of HIV prevalence in countries like Kenya and Tanzania, which means as many people died from HIV/AIDS as were newly-infected."

The UNAIDS report says massive HIV prevention efforts could be made in Afria for an investment of three billion dollars.

The UNAIDS report estimates there are almost six million people living with HIV/AIDS in South Asia and Southeast Asia, and another 1.4 million people in Latin America. In the United States and other Western countries, the rate of new HIV infections continues to decline.

How reliable are the global HIV/AIDS figures, given the gross underestimate of a decade ago? Bernhard Schwartlander is chief epidemiologist for UNAIDS. "There's a couple of very, very good studies that have been done over the past couple of years that make us very confident that the magnitude of our estimate is pretty much on the nose (very accurate)," said Schwartlander.

The other question according to Mister Schwartlander is where is the epidemic going? He says that depends upon prevention efforts of several big countries including Nigeria, India and China.