AIDS will spread all over the planet

The Mercury

I think we will see a further globalisation of the epidemic spreading to every single corner of the planet, said Peter Piot, the head of the United Nations' HIV/AIDS joint programme.

UNAIDS yesterday was scheduled to launch a 630-page report that takes stock of where the world stands with nearly 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS. It documents countries' progress and failures, and suggests what must happen to keep some regions from experiencing disaster. The report was set to be released a day before a high-level meeting on AIDS in New York, a week before 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 there was still time to stop it from worsening, but action was 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.

Intervention is very low . . . for many critical populations in many countries. We need to really intensify the response to AIDS.

Piot said the picture was 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 had been curbed, but a handful of other countries, including Kenya and Zimbabwe , were also starting to show promise.

Epidemics were diversifying, Piot said, with some driven by unprotected sex, others by dirty needles and some by a combination of the two overlapping each other. Those trends had to be identified and targeted.

Treatment

At present, about 1.3 million people in poor countries have access to antiretroviral treatment, but about 80% are still not receiving drugs.

Piot said sub-Saharan Africa continued to be the epicenter of the virus. The overall percentage of adults infected in some of the hardest-hit countries continued to climb, with several rates reaching double digits.

I 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 the sheer population of Asia, home to most of the world's population, made it a potential problem because even small gains in overall per capita infections equalled huge numbers - especially in countries like China and India , with more than one billion people each. More than five 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 was the only place in the region that resembled an Africa-style epidemic.

He said Eastern Europe and Central Asia had become a new front where infections had expanded as people gained access to more money and started buying injecting drugs 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, he said.

The Middle East is the last part of the world where HIV is not spreading rapidly. - Sapa-AP

The UNAIDS 2006 Report on the global AIDS epidemic can be viewed on:

http://www.unaids.org/en/HIV_data/2006GlobalReport/default.asp