The last decade has seen a nearly 25 per cent decline in new HIV infections, a reduction in AIDS-related deaths, and "unprecedented advances" in access to treatment, prevention services and care, the United Nations AIDS agency said in a report released Thursday night.
But UNAIDS said these achievements are unevenly distributed, exceedingly fragile, and fall short of global targets.
The report said more than 34 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2010 — including 2.6 million who became newly infected with the virus that causes AIDS in 2009.
An estimated 6.6 million people in low- and middle-income countries were receiving antiretroviral drug treatment at the end of last year, but about 9 million eligible people in those countries were not, the report said.
"We have made tremendous progress in stabilising or reducing rates of new infections in nearly 60 countries," UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe said in the introduction. "But this success only highlights the rampant stigma and discrimination that contributes to rising infection rates among key populations at higher risk, and to the vulnerability of women and girls."
According to the report, between 2008 and 2010, HIV among sex workers increased from 44 percent to 50 percent, and among gay men it rose from 30 percent to 36 percent. An estimated 20 percent of the 15.9 million people who inject drugs worldwide are living with HIV, the report said.
UNAIDS released the 139 page document ahead of Sunday's 30th anniversary of the first official report of what would become the HIV epidemic by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The report says the epidemic was spinning out of control from neglect in the early years, with the number of people infected with HIV rising from less than one million in 1981 to an estimated 27.5 million in 2000. But since 2001, the report said the global response to HIV has made "important achievements."
"Between 2001 and 2009, global HIV incidence steadily declined, with the annual rate of new infections falling by nearly 25 percent," the report said.
It said "above-average declines" have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa and south and southeast Asia while "more modest reductions" of less than 25 percent have taken place in Latin America, the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean nations. The report said rates of new infections have remained relatively stable in east Asia, Western and Central Europe and North America. But the HIV incidence has steadily increased in the Middle East and north Africa while in Eastern Europe and central Asia a decline was reversed in mid-decade with new infections rising slightly from 2005 to 2009.
The report said the overall gains, "while unprecedented, are partial at best" and did not achieve global and national targets.
Former US President Bill Clinton wrote in the report that "more than 7,000 people, including 1,000 children, are newly infected with the virus every day and someone dies an AIDS-related death every 20 seconds."
"People in rich countries don't die from AIDS any more, but those in poor countries still do — and that's just not acceptable," he said.
According to the report, investment in the response to HIV in low-and middle-income countries rose from US$1.6 billion in 2001 to US$15.9 billion in 2009.
But UNAIDS warned that "as the epidemic enters its fourth decade, flattening support potentially jeopardizes the sustainability of financing at recent levels."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in the preface that "the world has reached a crossroads."
"The number of people becoming infected and dying is decreasing, but the international resources needed to sustain this progress have declined for the first time in 10 years, despite tremendous unmet needs," he said.
UNAIDS and the secretary-general urged international donors to increase support to sustain and step up the fight against AIDS.
Sidibe, the UNAIDS executive director, stressed that billions of dollars will be needed to meet the agency's vision for the future — "zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths."
The report said "universal access" to drug treatment for those with HIV is achievable.
As of December 2009, seven countries had already reached at least 80 percent of treatment-eligible individuals with antiretroviral drugs — Botswana, Cambodia, Cuba, Guyana, Oman, Romania and Rwanda, the report said.
Fifteen countries reported treatment coverage of at least 60 percent of those with HIV, but the report said 28 countries have 20 per cent or less of those infected with HIV in treatment, including Russia, Egypt, Iran and Colombia.
30 years after first AIDS cases, hope for a cure
Sunday marks 30 years since the first AIDS cases were reported in the United States. And this anniversary brings fresh hope for something many had come to think was impossible: finding a cure.
The example is Timothy Ray Brown of San Francisco, the first person in the world apparently cured of AIDS. His treatment isn't practical for wide use, but there are encouraging signs that other approaches might someday lead to a cure, or at least allow some people to control HIV without needing medication every day.
"I want to pull out all the stops to go for it," though a cure is still a very difficult goal, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
For now, the focus remains on preventing new infections. With recent progress on novel ways to do that and a partially effective vaccine, "we're starting to get the feel that we can really get our arms around this pandemic," Fauci said.
More than 25 million people have died of AIDS since the first five cases were recognized in Los Angeles in 1981.
More than 33 million people have HIV now, including more than 1 million in the United States.
About 2 million people die of the disease each year, mostly in poor countries that lack treatment. In the US though, newly diagnosed patients have a life expectancy only a few months shorter than people without HIV. Modern drugs are much easier to take, and many patients get by on a single pill a day.
But it wasn't that way in 1995, when Brown, an American working as a translator in Berlin, learned he had HIV. He went on and off medicines because of side effects but was holding his own until 2006, when he was diagnosed with leukemia, a problem unrelated to HIV. Chemotherapy left him so sick he had to be put into a coma to allow his body to recover.
"They didn't know if I'd survive that," Brown said.
Dr. Gero Huetter, a blood cancer expert at the University of Berlin, knew that a transplant of blood stem cells (doctors used to use bone marrow) was the best hope for curing Brown's cancer. But he aimed even higher.
"I remembered something I had read in a 1996 report from a study of people who were exposed to HIV but didn't get infected," Huetter said.
These people had gene mutations that provide natural resistance to the virus. About 1 percent of whites have them, and Huetter proposed searching for a person who also was a tissue match for Brown.
But transplants are grueling. Huetter would have to destroy Brown's diseased immune system with chemo and radiation, then transplant the donor's cells and hope they would take hold and grow. Many cancer patients die from such attempts and Brown wasn't willing to risk it.
His mother, Sharon Brown of Seattle, agreed.
"Before I knew he had HIV I used to have nightmares about it," and gambling on a transplant to try to cure it didn't seem smart when the cancer seemed to be in remission, she said.
Several months later, the return of leukemia changed their minds.
Brown discussed the transplant with his boss "and she said, 'wow, this is amazing. Because you have leukemia, you could be cured of HIV.'"
A registry turned up more than 200 possible donors and Huetter started testing them for the HIV resistance gene. He hit pay dirt at No. 61 — a German man living in the United States, around 25 years old.
Brown had the transplant in February 2007. A year later, his leukemia returned but HIV did not. He had a second transplant in March 2008 from the same donor.
Now 45, Brown needs no medicines, and his only health problems are from the mugging he suffered two years ago as he returned home one night in Berlin. Brown was knocked unconscious, required brain surgery and therapy to walk and talk again, and doesn't have full use of one arm. He moved back to the United States in December.
"He's now four years off his antiretroviral therapy and we have no evidence of HIV in any tissue or blood that we have tested," even places where the virus can lie dormant for many years, Huetter said.
Brown's success inspired scientists to try a similar but less harsh tactic: modifying some of a patient's infection-fighting blood cells to contain the mutation and resist HIV. In theory, this would strengthen the immune system enough that people would no longer need to take HIV drugs to keep the virus suppressed.
Scientists recently tried this gene therapy in a couple dozen patients, including Matthew Sharp of suburban San Francisco. More than six months later, the number of his infection-fighting blood cells is "still significantly higher than baseline," he said.
It will take more time to know if gene therapy works and is safe. Experiments on dozens of patients are under way, including some where patients go off their HIV medicines and doctors watch to see if the modified cells control the virus.
The results so far on the cell counts "are all wonderful findings but they could all amount to nothing" unless HIV stays suppressed, said Dr. Jacob Lalezari, director of Quest Clinical Research in San Francisco who is leading one of the studies.
The approach also is not practical for poor countries.
"I wouldn't want people to think that gene therapy is going to be something you can do on 33 million people," said Fauci.
Other promising approaches to a cure try new ways to attack the dormant virus problem, he said. They hinge on getting people tested and into care as soon as they become infected.
Fauci's institute has boosted money for cure research, and the International AIDS Society, a professional organization for those who work in the field, has added finding a cure to its strategic plan.
"There are paths forward now" to a day when people with AIDS might be cured, said Dr. Michael Horberg, president of President Obama's HIV/AIDS council and of the HIV Medicine Association, doctors who treat the disease. "But it's not tomorrow, and it's not today."