The AIDS epidemic shows no signs of slowing, according to United Nations (UN) statistics released yesterday. Some 5.6 million people became infected with HIV this year, and 2.6 million died from the disease. For the first time, more African women in sub-Saharan Africa are infected than men. And while Africa still has the most cases, the former Soviet Union now has the fastest rising HIV infection rate in the world.
"The threat of HIV has not diminished in any country," Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS--the UN's special program on AIDS--told a press conference in London yesterday. Especially depressing was the news from Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where the number of HIV-infected individuals rose by more than a third in 1999 to an estimated 360,000. The increase was most rapid in the greater Moscow region, where 2700 infections were reported in the first 9 months of 1999--three times as many as in all previous years combined. Epidemiologists from UNAIDS and the World Health Organization, the groups that published the report, attribute the dramatic rise in Eastern Europe--centered largely in the Russian Federation and in Ukraine--to a surge in intravenous drug use.
AIDS officials say they are particularly disturbed by the rise in infections among African women, who now account for about 55% of the estimated 23.3 million HIV-positive people in the sub-Saharan region. Although the reasons for this are not entirely clear, epidemiologists suspect several factors, including the higher susceptibility of the female reproductive tract to viral transmission. Young African women are particularly vulnerable to infection through coerced sex with older men: Recent studies have shown that African girls aged 15 to 19 are up to six times more likely to be infected than boys of the same age.
The UNAIDS figures contradict notions that the epidemic is waning, Piot says. "There is no room for complacency in any discussion of this epidemic."