U.N. warns against cuts to AIDS prevention programs

GENEVA (Reuters) – HIV infections could surge if countries pinched by the global financial crisis cut AIDS prevention programs, a United Nations agency said on Friday.

Paul De Lay, a senior official at UNAIDS, said that economic turmoil was a threat to development programs as cash-strapped governments start to pare back on international aid.

The world must maintain current assistance levels, he told a briefing before World AIDS Day on Monday.

"(Or) what we’ll find in the next four or five years is a resurgence in new incident infections and we won’t be able to scale up the treatment that is clearly going to be needed as more and more people become symptomatic and need access to drugs," he said.

An estimated 33 million people worldwide were living with the HIV virus, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, at the end of 2007. AIDS has killed 25 million since being identified in 1981.

An estimated 2.7 million people become infected each year.

Treatment programs which provide life-extending drugs have expanded and now reach nearly 4 million people — short of the estimated 9.7 million in need of antiretrovirals — De Lay said.

Five new people are infected each year for every two put on treatment, he said. But antiretrovirals have come down in price and are getting easier to take, De Lay said.

"We are all expecting that the roll-out of a new category of drugs, the integrase inhibitors, will continue to improve patients’ response and make it easier and easier to take the drug regimens," he said.

Isentress, made by Merck and Co. is the such first drug on the market. Researchers reported last month that it worked slightly better than an older HIV drug called efavirenz in suppressing levels of the AIDS virus.

A year ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared Isentress for use in HIV patients whose infection has begun to resist the effects of other drugs.

The drug could compete with another integrase inhibitor called elvitegravir being tested by Gilead Sciences.

De Lay said clinical trials now using integrase inhibitors are mainly looking at how they can fit into combination drug regimens and ultimately reduce how often pills need to be taken.

He expected them to be rolled out in a more general way in the near future, "probably about a year to two years."

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