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UN sees HIV drop, path to nearly ending infections

AIDS deaths have dropped over the past decade, according to the UN. Studies have shown that timely treatment for those who have contracted HIV can cut the number of people who become newly infected.

Deaths fell to 1.7 million in 2011, down from 2.3 million in 2005 and 1.8 million in 2010, a UN report revealed on Tuesday. The number of people newly infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has also been falling. At 2.5 million, the number of new infections in 2011 was 20 percent lower than in 2001.

"The global community has embarked on an historic quest to lay the foundation for the eventual end of the AIDS epidemic," the report read. "This effort is more than merely visionary. It is entirely feasible."

"Although AIDS remains one of the world's most serious health challenges, global solidarity in the AIDS response during the past decade continues to generate extraordinary health gains," the report added.

UNAIDS found the sharpest declines in new infections since 2001 in the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa - where new infections have dropped 25 percent. The number with access to drugs there rose 59 percent in the past two years.

Fewer new infections

The report hailed the emergence of new combination drugs to prevent people from becoming infected and from dying from AIDS. Since 1995, a drug treatment known as antiretroviral therapy has saved 14 million life years in poorer countries. A somewhat complicated public health concept, the number refers to the years not lost to premature deaths from AIDS. Nine million of those life years were saved in sub-Saharan Africa alone.

By the end of 2011, about 8 million people had found drugs treatment, up twentyfold since 2003. The UN aims to raise that to 15 million by 2015. The goal of halving the number of infections by 2015 is also in reach, UNAIDS announced.

"The pace of progress is quickening: What used to take a decade is now being achieved in 24 months," UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe said. "We are scaling up faster and smarter than ever before. It is the proof that with political will and follow through we can reach our shared goals."

Manica Balasegaram, of the nongovernmental organization Medecins Sans Frontieres, said the pace must be stepped up "so that every month more people are started on lifesaving HIV treatment than the month before."

In total, the report said roughly 34 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2011. Sub-Saharan Africa is the most severely affected region, with almost 1 in 20 infected. That is 25 times the rate of Asia, where 5 million people live with HIV.

mkg/ccp (Reuters, dpa)