U.N. reports AIDS cases outstrip efforts to treat sick

June 03, 2008

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - The good news on AIDS: Nearly a million people began life-prolonging drug treatment in developing countries last year. The bad news: 2.5 million people were newly infected with HIV.

As new infections continue to far outstrip efforts to treat the sick, the United Nations released a progress report yesterday that highlighted both the notable gains in combating the AIDS epidemic and the daunting scale of what remains to be done.

UNAIDS and the World Health Organization, two U.N. agencies, had initially set a 2005 deadline for getting 3 million people in developing countries onto treatment regimens, but that goal was not achieved until last year. In 2007 alone, the number of people receiving antiretroviral therapy rose by 54 percent. Still, that's less than a third of those believed to need the treatment.

There was also significant headway in providing antiretroviral treatments to help prevent women from infecting their babies with HIV during pregnancy and childbirth. About a third of HIV-positive pregnant women got the treatments last year, compared with 10 percent in 2004, with the greatest gains in west and central Africa, the report found.

"It demonstrates our efforts have started to bear fruit," Patricia Doughty, a program officer at the U.N. Children's Fund, said in a telephone briefing.

But even as health systems geared up to prevent mothers from passing on the disease to their children, the needs of the mothers themselves were neglected. Only 12 percent of HIV-positive pregnant women were assessed for whether they needed treatment themselves. When mothers die of AIDS and their children are orphaned, it undermines the opportunities and even survival of the babies who were saved from infection.

The statistics were laid out in "Towards Universal Access: Scaling up Priority HIV/AIDS Interventions in the Health Sector," a collaboration of three U.N. agencies: UNAIDS, WHO and UNICEF. It is the annual report that documents the provision of prevention, care and treatment services for HIV and AIDS.

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