A wall mural in downtown Johannesburg shows a city skyline with an AIDS ribbon passing through workers who make a living in the town, 23 Nov 2010
A wall mural in downtown Johannesburg shows a city skyline with an AIDS ribbon passing through workers who make a living in the town, 23 Nov 2010

The United Nations says progress is being made worldwide against the HIV/AIDS virus, as fewer people are becoming infected and fewer are dying from the disease. The report also cites progress in sub-Saharan Africa, where two-thirds of all HIV victims live, but says greater efforts are needed in the struggle.

The United Nations report on HIV/AIDS says expanded treatment has dramatically reduced deaths from the virus in sub-Saharan Africa, but the region remains the most affected in the world.

The report said new HIV infections on the continent declined by nearly 20 percent since 2001, and dramatically improved access to treatment has lowered deaths by 20 percent in five years.

The director of UNAIDS for Eastern and Southern Africa, Sheila Tlou, said this was the good news in the battle against HIV, which attacks the immune system and has killed 30 million people in the past three decades.

But she warned against complacency.

"Even though the number of HIV infections is decreasing, there is still a need for prevention, because there are two new HIV infections for every one person that is put on HIV treatment, "said Tlou.

She noted that southern and eastern Africa still bear the brunt of the epidemic, with five percent of the world's population, but one-half of all HIV victims.

Nevertheless, the report notes that new infections had declined by more than 25 percent in four of the African countries with the largest HIV epidemics - Ethiopia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe - and had stabilized in a fifth, Nigeria.

South Africa's deputy minister of Health, Gwen Ramokgopa, praised the report for highlighting progress as well as challenges.

"We are encouraged that, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa - including in our country, South Africa - we are seeing the dawn of a new era, where we are starting to halt the epidemic. And, indeed, we need to consolidate our efforts so that we can get into a phase of reversal," said Ramokgopa.

The report says the epidemic is having a particularly heavy impact on African women, who account for three-fourths of HIV infections worldwide. It says for every 10 men who become infected in Africa, HIV infects 13 women.

It said stigma and discrimination also discouraged marginalized groups, such as sex workers, gays and drug users, from accessing testing and treatment on the continent.

But it said new infections among young people declined by 25 percent in the most affected countries between 2000 and 2008.  And, it said, infection of African children had declined by 32 percent between 2004 and 2009, a reflection of the increased access to treatment by pregnant women.

Tlou concluded that the battle against HIV/AIDS was far from over, noting that funding for the effort last year fell $10 billion short of the amount needed.

"Yeah, we have the good news. But the AIDS response is fragile. It needs to be kept alive. It needs to be kept alive with funding. Domestic funding is still very low," said Tlou.

She urged African governments to rely less on international donors, noting that, although many African governments have pledged to devote at least 15 percent of their budget to health and HIV/AIDS, only a few have done so.