1 December 2011

South Africa: Investment in Anti-HIV Services Paying Off - UN

Pretoria — Growing access to HIV and Aids treatment and prevention services resulted in a 15 percent decline in new infections over the past decade and a 22 percent drop in Aids-related deaths in the past five years, the United Nations reported.

While urging sustained long-term effort to combat the disease, the UN said it has taken the world 10 years to achieve this level of momentum.

"There is now a very real possibility of getting ahead of the epidemic. But this can only be achieved by both sustaining and accelerating this momentum over the next decade and beyond," director of WHO's HIV and Aids Department Gottfried Hirnschall said, when releasing a report on the global response to the pandemic.

According to the report, which was released on the eve of World Aids Day, which is marked on 1 December every year, advances in HIV science and programme innovations over the past year have raised hope for further progress in the future.

It is crucial that new science, technologies and approaches be applied to improve the efficacy of HIV programmes, especially during the current global economic uncertainty and related austerity measures, said the report.

Some of the successes include improved access to HIV testing services, evident in the fact that 61 percent of pregnant women in Eastern and Southern Africa now receive testing and counselling for HIV, up from 14 percent in 2005.

An estimated 48 percent of pregnant women in need of effective medicines to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV received them last year.

Antiretroviral therapies (ART), which improve the health and well-being of those infected and stop further HIV transmission, are available now for 6.65 million people in low- and middle-income countries, which account for 47 percent of the 14.2 million people eligible to receive them.

The report also acknowledges that investment in HIV services could lead to total gains of up to $34 billion by 2020 in increased economic activity and productivity, more than offsetting the costs of ART programmes, as healthier people are better able to engage in financially gainful activities.

Despite the progress, more than half of all infected people in need of antiretroviral therapies in low- and middle-income countries are still unable to access them. Many do not even know that they are infected.

Some countries are still not tailoring their programmes to meet the needs of those most at risk or in need. In many cases, vulnerable groups - including adolescent girls, people who inject drugs, men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers, prisoners and migrants - remain unable to access HIV prevention and treatment services, the report notes.

Paul De Lay, Deputy Executive Director of UNAIDS, cautioned that funding shortfalls could undermine efforts to roll back the disease.

"To reach these targets, we estimate we need between $22 billion and $24 billion per year by the year 2015," he said.

"Today we are falling short by $7 billion. Now, more than ever, ending Aids requires a unified approach of governments, multilateral agencies, NGOs, foundations, the private sector and individuals."

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