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Africa: Achievements noted in combating HIV and AIDS, but still far to go (BBC, UNAIDS, UNICEF)

A new report says that only 37 per cent of people in sub-Saharan Africa who need life-saving HIV drugs are actually receiving them. The joint report was released by the World Health Organization, the United Nation’s AIDS program, and UNICEF.

In 2005, world leaders pledged to achieve universal access to HIV medication by the end of 2010. But that target won’t be met.

According to the report, an estimated ten and a half million people in sub-Saharan Africa need antiretroviral drugs. Just less than four million actually receive the treatment. This is an increase of one million from last year. But the number of people needing antiretrovirals has not changed substantially. Antiretroviral drugs slow down the virus that causes AIDS.

The report warns that poorer countries must “substantially ramp up” the amount they spend on HIV and AIDS. UNAIDS recommends that the countries most affected by the virus allocate between one-half and three per cent of their budget to tackling the problem.

The report says there have been “hard-won gains,” but it also makes clear how much work remains to be done.

There are many reasons why people, especially in rural areas, find it difficult to access HIV treatment. Funding is inadequate, health systems ineffective, and the supply of HIV medicines is often interrupted. Many patients start treatment too late, or do not continue with the correct medication.

Dr. Gottfried Hirnschall is director of WHO’s HIV/AIDS Department. He says, “Some countries − such as Rwanda − have shown that universal access to treatment can be achieved. Zimbabwe has increased access by 50% in the past year − despite being heavily compromised, politically and economically.”

Certain groups fare worse. Only 26 per cent of children below fifteen years of age in sub-Saharan Africa receive the antiretroviral drugs they need. And only 35 per cent of pregnant women receive HIV testing and counselling. While 35 per cent is still low, it is much better than the nine per cent of women who were tested in 2005.

These improvements in treatment rates are encouraging. The authors write, “Millions of people are alive today as a result of investments in HIV over the past few years.”

But international agencies are concerned that funding for HIV programs is flat. The global economic crisis means that many HIV programs are now at risk.

Jimmy Kolker is UNICEF’s Chief of HIV and AIDS. He notes there is still work to do, and calls for increased commitment from the global community. He declares that, “Creating an HIV-free generation is possible.”