LONDON (Reuters) - The HIV/AIDS epidemic has tightened its grip
on the planet, surprising experts with the speed at which it
has infected 36 million people and outstripped even the worst
predictions, the U.N. said on Tuesday.
More than five million new cases were reported this year alone,
according to new figures released by UNAIDS, the United Nations
agency that spearheads the global battle against AIDS.
"It has killed more people this year than any other year
before," said Dr Peter Piot, the executive director of UNAIDS.
"Now it is clear the world has to wake up," he said in an
interview. HIV/AIDS has claimed three million lives in the past
two decades, UNAIDS said in its latest report.
The agency said cases of the HIV virus and AIDS were 50 percent
higher than medical experts a decade ago had predicted they
would be by now, despite advances in both treatments and
"The world clearly underestimated how rampant this epidemic
would become," Piot told Reuters.
"We've got far more cases than the worst case scenario than
thought out 10 years ago. It is the number one cause of deaths
in many, many parts of the world," he said.
In Africa, the worst-hit area, infection rates have fallen
slightly but only because so many people have already been
struck down by it.
One million more people in sub-Saharan Africa were infected
this year, a decrease from the previous year, bringing the
total in the region to 25.3 million.
In some African nations one in three adults has the virus.
There has been an explosion of new cases in Russia and Eastern
Europe, with the number of infections nearly doubling in just
one year from 420,000 to a conservative estimate of 700,000.
New infections are on the rise in North Africa and the Middle
East, the disease is gaining ground in Latin America and
prevention efforts have stalled in Western Europe and North
Catastrophe In Sub-Saharan Africa
Africa is by far the worst hit by AIDS. It is home to 70
percent of the adults and 80 percent of the children living
with HIV. It has also buried three-quarters of the more than 20
million people worldwide who have died since the AIDS epidemic
"The AIDS situation in Africa is catastrophic," said Piot. "One
of the greatest causes for concern is that over the next few
years, the epidemic is bound to get worse before it gets
In addition to the devastating toll of lives, the epidemic
looks set to devastate African economies.
UNAIDS predicts the economy of South Africa, which has the
highest absolute number of infected people in the world, could
be 17 percent smaller in 2010 than it would have been without
AIDS scything through its workforce.
The country's population will also shrink by 2015 and close to
a third of all semi-skilled and unskilled workers will be
HIV-positive by 2005.
HIV/AIDS has gained such a strong foothold on the continent for
a variety of reasons including poverty, poor sanitation,
crumbling health systems and sex. "You certainly won't find it
in any U.N. material, but the scientific community is rapidly
accepting the reality that there is more sex in Africa. There
is no other affordable leisure activity," a U.N. AIDS official
But UNAIDS estimates that $3 billion, which is only a fraction
of the $52 billion spent annually in the US on obesity, could
turn the situation around. "This seems like a small price to
pay to help a whole continent to avoid a future dominated by
the social disruption that defines the AIDS era," the report
Disease With Many Faces
In Eastern Europe, Russia, Europe, North America, Latin America
and the Caribbean and Asia the disease is fuelled by a
combination of injecting drug users and through homosexual and
heterosexual sex, the report says.
Despite improvements in antiretroviral therapy that stop the
virus from replicating and intense efforts to develop a
vaccine, education and prevention remain at the forefront of
efforts to control the epidemic.
The head of the UN children's agency UNICEF Carol Bellamy,
called for better efforts to prevent mothers from transmitting
the virus to their children at birth or through breastfeeding.
Of the five million people infected with HIV/AIDS in the past
year, 600,000 were transmitted from mothers to their children.
UNICEF is pushing for better screening, education and drugs to
prevent babies from getting the virus from their mothers.