JAKARTA, Indonesia – The world continues to lose an ugly battle to HIV/ AIDS that shows no sign of letting up after 25 million people have died a quarter-century into the epidemic, the head of the U.N.'s HIV/AIDS joint program said.
"I think we will see a further globalization of the epidemic spreading to every single corner of the planet," UNAIDS head Peter Piot told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Geneva.
UNAIDS on Tuesday was scheduled to launch a 630-page report that takes stock of where the world currently stands with nearly 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS. It documents countries' progress and failures, and projects what must happen to keep some regions from experiencing disaster. The report was set to be released a day ahead of a High Level Meeting on AIDS in New York, a week prior to the 25th anniversary of the first documented AIDS cases on June 5, 1981.
"It won't go away one fine day, and then we wake up and say, 'Oh, AIDS is gone,'" Piot said. "I think we have to start thinking about looking at the next generations. There's an increasing diversity in how the epidemic looks."
Piot said that there is still time to stop it from worsening, but action is needed now on a number of fronts.
"Ultimately, it depends on how the leadership reacts, how the international community will continue to respond and how ready communities are to face the problem," Piot said. "Intervention is very low ... for many critical populations in many countries. We need to really intensify the response to AIDS."
Piot said the picture is not hopeless, with examples of progress in nearly every part of the world. He said Thailand and Uganda were two of the only previous examples where exploding epidemics were curbed, but a handful of other countries, including Kenya and Zimbabwe, are also starting to show promise.
Epidemics are diversifying, Piot said, with some driven by unprotected sex, others by dirty needles and some a combination of the two overlapping each other. Those trends must be identified and targeted.
Currently, about 1.3 million people in poor countries have access to antiretroviral treatment, but about 80 percent still are not receiving drugs.
Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be the epicenter of the virus, Piot said. The overall percentage of adults infected in some of the hardest-hit countries continues to climb, with several rates reaching double digits.
"In think in Africa, it is only comparable in demographic terms to the slave trade regarding the impact it has had on the population," Piot said. "In southern Africa, HIV prevalence continues to go up, and they're already the world record."
Piot said that the sheer population of Asia, home to most of the world's population, makes it a potential problem because even small gains in overall per capita infections equal huge numbers — especially in countries like China and India, with over 1 billion people each. More than 5 million people are infected in India alone.
The Asia-Pacific region has 8.3 million people living with the virus, the second-highest after sub-Saharan Africa.
Papua New Guinea, which shares an island north of Australia with Indonesia's easternmost Papua province, has one of the region's worst epidemics in a country plagued by political instability, poverty and rampant sexual violence against women. Piot said it's the only place in the region that resembles an Africa-style epidemic.
Piot said Eastern Europe and Central Asia have become a new front where infections have expanded as people have access to more money and started buying injecting drugs — instead of just shipping them through — from countries like Afghanistan.
"Absolute numbers are still low, but when you look at the spread of the disease, we know from experience where that leads," Piot said. "The Middle East is the last part of the world where HIV is not spreading rapidly."