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UN cuts AIDS infection estimate

by Staff Writers
Geneva (AFP) Nov 20, 2007
The United Nations on Tuesday sharply reduced by about seven million its estimate for the number of people worldwide infected with the AIDS virus, citing a major reassessment of HIV prevalence in India.

Health officials warned against any complacency in the fight against the disease in the light of the latest statistics, stressing the need for vigilance and ever more reliable monitoring mechanisms.

Revised figures in the latest UNAIDS annual report slashed an estimate for total infections this time last year to 32.7 million from 39.5 million cases, the number given in the agency's 2006 report.

"The single biggest reason for the reduction in global HIV prevalence figures in the past year was the recent revision in India after an intensive reassessment of the epidemic in that country," UNAIDS said in its report.

Improvements in data collection also resulted in statistics being revised for Angola, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, it added.

UNAIDS cautioned against comparing 2007 figures to those of last year in the light of the revisions.

"Reliable public health data are the essential foundation for an effective response," said Kevin De Cock, head of HIV/AIDS at the World Health Organisation.

"We need to continue investing more in all countries and all aspects of strategic information relating to health," he added.

The WHO official told journalists it was "probably not likely" that there were any other big countries where there could be a similar "major error" in the estimate of HIV/AIDS cases as happened in India.

The number of people worldwide infected with HIV in 2007 totalled 2.5 million people and 33.2 million are now living with the virus, the report said. More than two million people died from the incurable disease in 2007.

Children under the age of 15 totalled 2.5 million of the total number of those living with the virus, 420,000 of new cases and 330,000 of all AIDS deaths.

Numbers of people living with the virus were levelling out and the percentage of the population affected was now in decline, the report said.

But UNAIDS director of evidence, monitoring and policy Paul De Lay told a press briefing that the fall in numbers should not be taken as a sign that the battle had been won.

"This is an epidemic where we need eternal vigilance and to never let our guard down," he said.

"If we start to neglect our prevention programmess, the epidemic turns around and starts to increase again," De Lay added.

Some 1.7 million new infections were recorded in sub-Saharan Africa, two-thirds of the global total, and AIDS remains the leading cause of death in the region.

About 22.5 million people living in Africa have HIV/AIDS, 68 percent of the global total, the report said.

Sub-Saharan African countries are in the grip of a sustained epidemic among the general populations, with women making up 61 percent of all people infected.

Elsewhere in the world, the epidemic is chiefly concentrated in vulnerable groups such as men who have sex with men, sex workers and their partners, and injecting drug users.

In Asia there are now 4.9 million cases, up 440,000 from last year. Indonesia has the fastest growing HIV prevalence on the continent, while the number of infections in Vietnam has more than doubled between 2000 and 2005.

In India, the latest figures show around 2.5 million people living with the disease in 2006, with a national adult HIV prevalence of 0.36 percent.

Unprotected sex is the main factor behind the spread of the disease in the country, with contaminated drug injecting equipment also playing a key role in the north-eastern regions, the report said.

The Caribbean is the second worst-hit region of the world in per capita terms with one percent of adults -- 230,000 people -- carrying the virus, according to the report.

In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the number of people living with the disease rose to 1.6 million in 2007, with around 150,000 new infections.

Nearly 90 percent of new cases were recorded in Russia and Ukraine, and injecting drug use is a major factor in the region's epidemic, the report said.

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