The number of new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa may have leveled off, according to new figures released today by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO). By the end of this year, there will be an estimated 3.8 million new infections, down from 4 million in 1999, according to the report. But the extent of the disease is still alarming; globally, the number of people living with HIV or AIDS has risen to 36.1 million, more than 50% higher than WHO predicted in 1991.
UNAIDS attributes the slight decrease in sub-Saharan Africa to prevention programs in countries such as Uganda, and to the fact that infection rates are already so high that relatively few people in vulnerable groups are left to infect. The decline in infection "is not bad news, but it's certainly not good news," says Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland. The somber facts are that last year, 2.4 million people died of AIDS in the region, while the number of people living with the disease grew to 25.3 million.
Meanwhile, the number of new HIV infections jumped 67% in Eastern Europe. The figures are particularly grim in the Russian Federation, where 50,000 new HIV infections were registered in 2000--more than in all previous years combined. "It's just exploded," says Seth Berkley, president of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative in New York City. The number of people with AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is now 700,000, compared with 920,000 in the United States.
The increase in HIV infections in Eastern Europe is primarily among intravenous drug users--for now. The problem, says Berkley, is that once HIV spreads to the rest of the population it quickly becomes a widespread epidemic.