HIV Infections and AIDS Deaths Dropping, But Epidemic Still Daunting

Fewer infections. New statistics show that the infection rate for HIV, shown (yellow) attacking a human cell, has dropped by 20% since 2001.

National Institutes of Health

A new global report on the HIV/AIDS epidemic spotlights success in both prevention and treatment efforts, but also stresses that countries must dramatically ramp up both if the world hopes to meet the ambitious goals agreed upon last year at a special session of the United Nations.

The report, released today by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), estimates that the world had 34 million HIV-infected people at the end of 2011. The most heartening news is that the rate of new infections, 2.5 million people last year, represents a 20% drop from 2001. The decline has been greater than 50% in 25 low- and middle-income countries, including some of the hardest hit in sub-Saharan Africa. Roughly one-half of the decline is the result of interventions that aim to prevent transmission of HIV from pregnant women to their babies.

"It's amazing what's happening," UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé tells ScienceInsider. "We're increasing the pace of action. What was taking 10 years now is taking 2 years, even with the same level of resources."

Similarly impressive gains have occurred with treatment. Antiretroviral (ARV) drugs are now provided to 8 million people, a 20-fold jump since 2003. AIDS-related deaths have also fallen to 1.7 million, down from 2.3 million in 2005.

The report, which UNAIDS issued on the eve of World AIDS Day (1 December) describes this news as "encouraging," but also squarely acknowledges the daunting challenge of hitting several of the 2015 targets set at the United Nations meeting. Specifically, countries agreed that 3 years from now, they will be providing 15 million people with ARVs, slash sexual and injecting drug transmission by 50%, and eliminate mother-to-child transmission. "The next thousand days will be a real test to our collective commitment and action," said UNAIDS official Bernhard Schwartländer at a teleconference today.