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New HIV infections declining, health agencies say

Many don’t have access to antiretroviral drugs

It is estimated that the number of new HIV infections each year has declined about 17 percent since 2000, but for every five people infected, only two begin treatment, according to a report from the World Health Organization and UNAIDS that was released Tuesday.

About 2.7 million people were newly infected with the virus that causes AIDS last year, compared with about 3.3 million in 2000 – although direct comparisons are difficult, because the cases are counted differently now. The biggest improvements were in sub-Saharan Africa, where there were 400,000 fewer infections, even though the region still accounts for 67 percent of all new infections.

An estimated 33.4 million people were HIV-positive worldwide in 2008, a slight increase from 33 million in 2007. That increase occurred in large part because of more people living longer after infection with the help of antiretroviral drugs.

About 4 million people were receiving AIDS drugs at the end of 2008, compared with 3 million the previous year. However, an additional “5 million people need treatment and are not receiving it,” said Dr. Teguest Guerma, acting director of the WHO’s HIV/AIDS department, at a news conference Tuesday.

She said about 2.9 million lives had been saved by increased access to the drugs as a result of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and other international assistance programs.

The drugs also have cut down on mother-to-child transmission of the virus and reduced the number of orphaned children. About 200,000 infant infections have been averted since 2001, Guerma said.

The report was formally released in Shanghai by UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe because of concerns that China will become a new AIDS epicenter.

The rate of new infections through heterosexual contact in China tripled between 2005 and 2007, according to the new report. About 40 percent of new infections there last year were acquired through heterosexual contact, with homosexual sex accounting for 32 percent and most of the rest related to drug abuse.

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