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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 1, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 40
World misses target date for universal access to HIV meds
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World misses target date for universal access to HIV meds

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

A new report released by the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN's AIDS program (UNAIDS), and UNICEF on September 28 indicates that the worldwide struggle against HIV/AIDS is making progress, but more slowly than was once hoped.

World leaders had pledged to achieve universal access to HIV medication by the end of 2010. That target will not be met.

While the report says there have been 'hard-won gains,' it also makes clear that much work remains to be done.

The report says only a third of people worldwide who need life-saving HIV drugs are actually getting treatment.

It warns that poorer countries must 'substantially ramp up' what they spend on HIV/AIDS.

Most countries need to look seriously into increasing their domestic spending on HIV/AIDS, the report says.

An estimated 5.25 million people in developing counties are receiving vital antiretroviral drugs to slow down the virus that causes AIDS.

That number has grown by 1.2 million in the past year, but experts believe that 14.6 million people need treatment.

The overall estimate has grown because new WHO guidelines say that treatment should start at an earlier stage of the disease.

The news is not entirely grim, however.

The report's authors say that 'Millions of people are alive today as a result of investments in HIV over the past few years.

'Yet this evidence becomes available at a time when the global economic crisis has put the sustainability of many HIV programs at risk.

'After years of considerable increases in international assistance, funding remained essentially flat over the current period.'

The director of the WHO HIV/AIDS department, Dr. Gottfried Hirnschall, said, 'Some countries - such as Rwanda - have shown that universal access to treatment can be achieved.

'Zimbabwe has increased access by 50% in the past year - despite being heavily compromised, politically and economically.

'And South Africa has had an incredible catch-up phase, despite being a late starter.

'But given those success stories, we need to sustain the momentum - and be smarter in making the case,' Dr. Hirnschall concluded.

The report also noted advances in treatment of pregnant women and children.

The report found that just over half of pregnant women who tested positive for HIV were assessed for drug treatment, up from 34% the previous year.

'We are particularly encouraged by increased access to treatment for both pregnant women and children living with the virus, as well as ongoing expansion of programs to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT), which accounts for more than 90% of new infections in children,' said Dr. Nicholas Hellmann, executive vice president of medical and scientific affairs for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

'In the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, the global health community is together reaching more than half of pregnant women (53%) in need of PMTCT services with antiretroviral drugs.

'The fact that only 15% of women had access to PMTCT drugs just five years ago shows the clear results of global commitments to scale-up this prevention method, which has been proven to dramatically reduce new infant HIV infections.

'The report also shows a dramatic increase in the number of children receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART), with a 29% increase from the previous year,' Hellmann concluded.

In many countries, children still lag far behind adults in access to treatment, however. According to the new report, less than a third of children in need of treatment are receiving it, and only a small fraction of HIV-exposed infants are being tested soon after birth.

Another bright spot in HIV/AIDS news is the most recent reporting from Africa, where HIV/AIDS was estimated to affect up to one-third of the population of some countries.

Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are leading a global decline in new HIV infections, a UNAIDS report released earlier in September revealed.

UNAIDS said 22 countries in the world's worst affected region had seen a drop in new cases of more than 25%.

The fall was because of greater awareness and better use of preventative measures, it said.

But UNAIDS also noted that cases of HIV were increasing in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and among Gay men in developed countries.

Michel Sidibe, UNAIDS executive director, said the world was making 'real progress' towards achieving the sixth Millennium Development Goal (MDG6) of halting and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015.

'For the first time, change is happening at the heart of the epidemic. In places where HIV was stealing away dreams, we now have hope,' he said.

UNAIDS recommends that countries most affected by the virus should allocate between 0.5% and 3% of their government revenue to tackling the problem.

Dr. Hirnschall warned that 'Most of the countries that need to do this aren't yet reaching the 0.5% mark.

'They have to chip in their own resources and look seriously into increasing their domestic spending, to better complement external funding.'

By the first week in October, wealthier countries are expected to announce how much money they will contribute to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Dr. Hirnschall said, 'There have been promising signals from some countries, who've already made pledges.

'It's clear things won't be easy, though. We have to be strategic in explaining what's needed, and how investment can help other health and development outcomes.'

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