JOHANNESBURG – The global AIDS epidemic has slowed with a 20 percent decrease in new HIV infections over the past decade, the United Nations' AIDS agency said Tuesday.
Despite claiming that the trajectory of the epidemic has been "broken," a report released Tuesday by the Geneva-based agency said that there are still 7,000 new infections each day, which means two people are still infected with the virus for every one starting treatment.
Worldwide, the agency said, 33.3 million people are infected with HIV.
In South Africa, which has more people than any other country with the virus that causes AIDS, the agency said new infections have reduced by more than 25 percent in the same time period. AIDS has posed major challenges to the developing nation, affecting an estimated 5.7 million people — a significant chunk of the work force — in the nation of some 50 million people.
Sheila Tlou, an Africa-based UNAIDS official, said that increased condom use, abstinence and improved awareness of AIDS, have contributed to the fall in infections in Africa. However, the report said sub-Saharan Africa, described by the World Health Organization as the "epicenter of the epidemic," continues to be disproportionately affected by the disease, bearing almost 70 percent of the global HIV burden.
"There is time for optimism, but with a purpose," Tlou told The Associated Press. She said that programming needs to focus on groups that are stigmatized by society and the government.
The report also noted the success of efforts to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the virus, and said it could be virtually eliminated by 2015.
"We can say with confidence and conviction that we have broken the trajectory of the AIDS pandemic. Less people are becoming infected. Less people are dying," UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe told reporters in Geneva. "At least 56 countries have stabilized or significantly slowed down the rate of HIV infection."
The report also highlighted a worrying increase in infections among young men in North America and Western Europe, which the agency believes is a consequence of fewer precautions. Cases in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central Asia have almost tripled over the decade.
"The epidemic is far from over in North America and Western Europe," Sidibe said, adding that complacency has played a key role in Western Europe. "We don't see anymore people dying with HIV ... A new generation are losing completely the sense of urgency for protection."
AIDS-related deaths have decreased by nearly 20 percent in the period from 2004 to 2009, as access to treatment has expanded. UNAIDS said 5.2 million people in poor countries were accessing lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs in 2009, compared to just 700,000 in 2004.
However, approximately 10 million people — double the number on treatment — are still waiting to be initiated onto the drugs.
Another factor AIDS experts note is the increasing success of HIV treatments, which add to life expectancy, but also to the cost of treating patients over their lifetime.
Tlou said she hopes the progress described in the report will prompt international donors to increase their funding.
"If people see their money has actually been put to good use, and has produced results, then we'll probably have more replenishment, more countries pledging," Tlou said.
Mark Heywood, deputy chairman of South Africa's National AIDS Council, said there were still more challenges than successes.
"When we have less than 50 percent of people who need treatment on treatment, when we're still failing on prevention, then I don't really think there's anything to crow about at this stage," he said. "We can be optimistic, but the hard work still lies ahead."
The report said one of the greatest strides in prevention of HIV infection has been improved condom use among young people engaging in risky sex.
But some say they know the risks, but still don't take the precautions.
"I think most people, they don't use condoms," said Comment Nxumalo, a 26-year-old mechanic in Johannesburg. "... when you get drunk at times, get a girl there, you end up not using those condoms. Even though at times they'll be in your pocket. But you don't use them."
Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.