U.N. warns AIDS could spike if countries drop guard

By Michael Kahn Tue Nov 20, 11:37 AM ET

LONDON (Reuters) – The world risks a resurgence of the AIDS epidemic if countries let their guard down, United Nations officials cautioned on Tuesday.

Lower estimates of how many people are infected with the virus, and more effective treatments, are causing countries to relax their vigilance, they said.

Earlier, the U.N. AIDS agency slashed its estimates of how many people are infected from nearly 40 million to 33 million, mainly due to revised figures for India. It said better methods of collecting data showed it is not quite a common as feared..

But officials said evidence also showed the epidemic was creeping back in countries that have become less careful, mainly industrialised nations where many people with AIDS have access to drugs that can extend their lives.

"We are seeing a return of the epidemic," Paul De Lay of UNAIDS told reporters. "We are seeing that in the U.S., we are seeing that in the UK, we are seeing that in Germany and we are seeing that in the developing world also."

Each day there are more than 6,800 new HIV infections and 5,700 AIDS-related deaths, ensuring that the disease will pose a major health concern for years, UNAIDS said.

"The sheer scale of the epidemic compared to other diseases is so much more vast," De Lay said. "The epidemic is just waiting to come back if programs are reduced."

The U.N. agency said the single biggest reason for this reduction was a push to better assess India’s HIV epidemic. After originally estimating some 5.7 million people were infected in India, the U.N. more than halved that estimate, to 2.5 million, in July.

Experts and AIDS advocacy groups have long criticized the agency’s numbers as too high, and some said there was no way to tell if the new report was any better without universal testing.

Kevin De Cock, director of the World Health Organization‘s Department of HIV/AIDS said the implications for dealing with the disease were the same despite the lower estimates.

"This remains the leading infectious disease challenge to public health even if some of these figures are adjusted," he told reporters in a telephone briefing . "We are facing decades of this problem."

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