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AIDS deaths down in poor nations, U.N. says

WASHINGTON – A push to get more AIDS treatment to the world’s poorest, hardest-hit countries is paying off as deaths inch down – and new infections are dropping a bit, too, the United Nations reported Wednesday.

“I personally believe it is a new era: new era for treatment, new era for prevention,” said Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS.

Some 34.2 million people worldwide were living with the AIDS virus at the end of last year, a slight increase from the previous year as better treatment helps patients live longer.

Most of them live in low- and middle-income countries, where a record 8 million people received lifesaving drugs last year, the report found. That’s up from 6.6 million in 2010 and puts the world on track to meet a U.N. goal of having 15 million people in those hard-hit regions on treatment by 2015.

The report comes days before the world’s largest AIDS conference opens in the nation’s capital with the goal of finally “turning the tide” on the epidemic and stemming the spread of HIV.

Treatment is one of the keys to doing that because it doesn’t just save the lives of people living with HIV. Recent research shows early treatment, which helps patients stay healthy, also makes them far less likely to infect others.

“We need to get that number up as rapidly as possible,” said Chris Collins of amFAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, who called the 2011 increase in treatment higher than expected. The world spent $16.8 billion battling AIDS in the hard-hit countries last year. Sidibe said an important reason for the progress is that affected countries are paying more of their share – for the first time, totaling a bit more than wealthier donor nations paid – as they see the fruits of the investment. South Africa alone spent nearly $2 billion last year. But, “we are still short $7 billion” of the yearly total it will take to get to the 2015 treatment goal, Sidibe warned.

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