In the 30 years since it was first identified, the global response to AIDS has achieved significant results. More people than ever before have access to treatment, allowing them to manage their condition, and according to the United Nations rates of new HIV infections are falling by nearly 25 percent. In spite of these successes, it is important that efforts continue to ensure that progress is made towards further improving treatment options and outcomes.
Since 1981, a reported 25 million people worldwide have died from AIDS and an additional 34 million are infected with HIV. According to a recent United Nations report, in the 33 worst-affected countries, the rate of new HIV infections fell by 25 percent between 2001 and 2009, and in India and South Africa, the countries with the largest populations of individuals living with HIV, new infections fell by 50 percent and 35 percent, respectively. According to Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS, through the use of antiretroviral therapy (ART), “AIDS has moved from what was effectively a death sentence to a chronic disease…Antiretroviral therapy is a bigger game-changer than ever before – it not only stops people from dying, but also prevents the transmission of HIV to women, men and children.”
A decade ago, half of the population of several nations in southern Africa were expected to die of AIDS-related causes, but as ART has become more widely available, the death rate is dropping. An estimated 6.6 million people in low- and middle-income countries were receiving ART at the end of 2010 – a nearly 22-fold increase since 2001. In spite of this increase, reports indicate that there are 16 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS who could benefit from these medications but many do not receive them. Even in the United States and other developed nations, individuals living with HIV/AIDS are frequently put on long waiting lists to gain access to these life-saving drugs as the supply is not able to meet the demand for them.
While expanded access to ART can help to improve the lives of individuals with HIV/AIDS and help to prevent new infection, a major gap in treatment still exists. Access to treatment for children is significantly lower than for adults, and only 28 percent of all eligible children were receiving treatment in 2009, compared with 36 percent for people of all ages. In addition, while the rate of new HIV infections globally has declined, the total number of individuals with HIV remains high and certain groups, including women of reproductive age, remain at increased risk of infection. By ensuring that antiretroviral medications and education and treatment programs are widely available, it may be possible to further decrease the number of new HIV/AIDS infections worldwide as researchers continue to work to track the spread of the disease and find a cure.