LONDON – The HIV/AIDS epidemic continues its devastating march across the globe, with more deaths and infections this year than ever before, according to a U.N. report released Tuesday.
The report by UNAIDS (search), the U.N. agency responsible for coordinating global efforts to fight the disease, said the epidemic killed more than 3 million people in 2003. Around 5 million more acquired the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, bringing the number of people living with the virus to between 34 million and 46 million.
"This is an epidemic that at the start was a white middle-class gay man's disease. Today, if you use a stereotype, the face of AIDS is a young woman from Africa," Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, told a news conference in London.
The report said the epidemic is rampant in sub-Saharan Africa — an estimated 26.6 million of the continent's people are living with HIV — and a new wave of the disease is threatening China, Indonesia and Russia because of transmissions through drug use and unsafe sex.
There was some positive news in the report, with several countries making progress in combating the spread of the disease. Uganda was considered one success story, marking its 12th consecutive year of reduced HIV infections.
UNAIDS also said the global response to the crisis had expanded significantly in the past two to three years, with spending on anti-retroviral medication and education increasing in many countries.
"However, it is quite clear that our current global efforts remain entirely inadequate for an epidemic that is continuing to spiral out of control," said Piot. "AIDS is tightening its grip on southern Africa and threatening other regions of the world."
The report said anti-retroviral treatment coverage remains dismal in sub-Saharan Africa, and basic knowledge of HIV/AIDS is disturbingly low in many countries, especially among women.
Voluntary counseling and testing services are all but absent in many nations and only 1 percent of pregnant women in heavily affected countries have access to services aimed at preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission, the report said.
A report by the Washington-based International Center for Research on Women (search) said the stigma of the disease continues to impede testing, prevention and treatment for women in Africa.
"It is now incumbent on international policy-makers to definitively address stigma and discrimination to alleviate the burden of suffering it has added to the lives of people living with HIV and AIDS," said Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the center.
By revealing HIV-positive status, women may risk losing status in their households and communities and frequently lose their jobs and sometimes their housing, the center's report said. The findings were based on a three-year study in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Zambia.
Dr. Jack Chow, who heads the World Health Organization's (search) AIDS campaign, said the organization aims to deliver anti-retroviral drugs to 3 million people worldwide by the end of 2005. Detailed plans for the initiative will be unveiled next week to coincide with World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.