UN Releases Annual Report on AIDS: Mostly Good News


The United Nations Joint Program on AIDS (UNAIDS) released its annual update on the global AIDS epidemic Monday. The report contains goods news: The number of new HIV infections is down, more people are getting the treatment they need, and fewer people died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2012, compared to the peak in 2005.

In 2012, there were an estimated 35.3 million people living with HIV worldwide, but the number of new infections had declined by 33 percent since 2001. There were 2.3 million new infections in 2012, down from 2.5 million in 2011 and 3.4 million at the peak in 2001. Some countries have seen an even greater reduction in new cases—in 26 countries, new HIV infections among adults and adolescents decreased by 50 percent or more during this period.

The number of new infections in children has also declined significantly. In 2001, an estimated 550,000 children became infected, compared to 260,000 in 2012. This represents a 52 percent decline.

Another important point of improvement in the last decade has been the number people living with HIV who are receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART). By the end of 2012, approximately 9.7 million people living with HIV in low- and middle-income countries had access to ART. This is an increase of nearly 20 percent in just one year. Part of the reason for the increase was a commitment made by UN member states in 2011 to reach 15 million people with HIV treatment by the year 2015. As these efforts were made across the globe, however, it became clear that treatment also leads to prevention of new infections (those on ART are less contagious) and the World Health Organization released new treatment guidelines suggesting that HIV-positive individuals start treatment sooner. Under these guidelines, an additional ten million people are eligible for drug therapy, meaning that by today’s standards only 34 percent of those eligible for ART are getting it. Still, experts believe that even more expansion is possible. Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, said in a statement, “Not only can we meet the 2015 target of 15 million people on HIV treatment—we must also go beyond and have the vision and commitment to ensure no one is left behind.”

Perhaps because of this expansion of treatment, which can extend the lives of individuals living with HIV, fewer people died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2012. Around the world, 1.6 million people died from the disease in 2012, compared to 1.8 million in 2011 and 2.3 million at the peak in 2005. This represents a 30 percent decline in just the last seven years. The leading cause of death among people living with HIV remains tuberculosis (TB) though these deaths are falling as well—TB-related deaths in HIV-positive individuals have fallen by 36 percent since 2004. Overall, it estimated that over 36 million people have died from AIDS-related illness since the start of the epidemic.

The report also notes that much of this progress has been made despite essentially flat funding since 2008. According to UNAIDS, the total global resources available to fight the epidemic in 2012 was $18.9 billion, which is about $4 billion less than what experts determined was needed each year.

Though the numbers show marked improvement across the globe, the report cautions that there are other aspects of the epidemic in which we are not making progress. In its press release about the report, UNAIDS says:

The report finds that progress has been slow in ensuring the respect of human rights, securing access to HIV services for people most at risk of HIV infection, particularly people who use drugs, and in preventing violence against women and girls––a key factor in vulnerability to HIV. Gender inequality, punitive laws and discriminatory actions are continuing to hamper national responses to HIV and concerted efforts are needed to address these persistent obstacles to the scale up of HIV services for people most in need.

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