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World AIDS Epidemic Slows, But Fight Stalls In Parts Of Asia

NPR icon by Michaeleen Doucleff
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New HIV infections have dropped more than 50 percent across 25 developing countries since 2001, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS reported on Tuesday. And, transmission of the virus from mothers to infants has decreased by 24 percent in just the past two years.

A big chunk of this progress has occurred in Africa, where the largest number of HIV-positive people live. Malawi, Namibia and Botswana have led the way with about 70 percent decreases in new infections over the past decade.

Though the findings are hopeful, the global averages gloss over places where the fight against of HIV is struggling, and, in some cases losing ground.

Infections in the Middle East and the North Africa have increased by more than 35 percent over the past decade. And, HIV seems to be on the rise again in Eastern Europe and Central Asia after remaining steady for years.

"What we are having today is multiple epidemics," UNAIDS's Michele Sbide said on Tuesday. "We don't have any more one epidemic."

For instance, new infections in China have nearly quadrupled since 2007, the report found. HIV prevalence is still generally low in China compared to that in many African countries, but China had nearly 40,000 new diagnoses in 2011, and the steady incline is concerning.

"There is a significant epidemic in men having sex with men in China, which happens in almost all of the major cities," Dr. Bernard Schwartlander, a director at UNAIDS, said Tuesday. "The Chinese are very pragmatic people. They have recognized the problem, and they have started a strong and proactive program to reach these populations."

Their getting more people on antiretroviral treatment, Schwartlander said. The drugs not only help keep infected people healthy, but they also reduce their risk of spreading the virus.

Just a few years ago, China had essential no services for preventing HIV among drug users. Now, they have one of the biggest programs for harm reduction, which includes needle exchange centers and methadone clinics.

"They are completely controlling the epidemic among people who are injecting drugs," Sbide said. Even so, the epidemic is growing among homosexual men, he said, with over 30 percent of the new infections occurring among them.

To reverse this trend in China and other countries, Sbide said that governments need to expand resources for populations most at risk. For instance, Brazil and Russia have spent about the same amount of money on stopping HIV. But Brazil focused on communities with the largest infection rates, and thus, it has made better progress than Russia.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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