• Hundreds of AIDS activists march through the streets of Durban during the 21st International Aids Conference on July 18, 2016. (Getty Images, AFP)Source: Getty Images, AFP
HIV/AIDS-related deaths are steadily declining, but global HIV infection rates have barely dropped.
By
Kemal Atlay

20 Jul 2016 - 11:31 AM  UPDATED 20 Jul 2016 - 11:33 AM

Scientists have revealed that global HIV infection rates have failed to significantly decline in the past 10 years and have actually increased in over 70 countries, according to a new study.

An international team of researchers analysed the findings from the Global Burden of Disease 2015 study and found that despite a steady decline in HIV and AIDS-related deaths between 2005 and 2015, the global rate of new infections had dropped by a mere 0.7 per cent per year in the same period.

The study was published in The Lancet HIV and its findings were announced at the AIDS 2016 conference in Durban, South Africa overnight.

“The findings of the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015 on HIV reveal challenges that the global health community faces in the effort to end AIDS by 2030, among other global goals,” lead author Dr Haidong Wang, from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, tells SBS.

The researchers found that the slow decline of new HIV infections worldwide of 0.7 per cent per year between 2005 and 2015, compared to the annual 2.7 per cent between 1997 and 2005, meant new infections at stagnated at around 2.5 million per year.

While some progress is being made in getting life-saving treatment to people with HIV, the sheer numbers of people getting HIV and dying are devastating.

The number of people living with HIV steadily increased from 27.96 million in 2000 to 38.8 million in 2015, and infection rates increased in 74 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and south and south-east Asia.

Based on these numbers, most countries would fail to achieve the UNAIDS 90-90-90 target – by 2020, 90 per cent of people living with HIV will know their status, 90 per cent of all people diagnosed with HIV will be on antiretroviral therapy (ART), and 90 per cent of people on ART will have viral suppression.

“The increase in incidence in some countries, both in­ terms of rate and number of new infections, is one of the most significant findings of our study especially given the fast decline in new infections globally between 1997 and 2005 and the tremendous amount efforts and resources global community has committed to in the past decade,” says Dr Wang.

He said the increase in new infections could be due to factors at the nation level, such as “lower than optimum viral load suppression, exaggerated ART coverage and a potential increase in risky sexual behaviour in the presence of ART treatment”, but further analysis would be needed to differentiate between specific countries.

The researchers also found that annual deaths from HIV/AIDS declined from a peak of 1.8 million in 2005 to 1.2 million in 2015, which they say is partly due to the increased availability of ART. The proportion of people living with HIV that were on ART had greatly increased from 6.4 per cent to 38.6 per cent in men and 3.3 per cent to 42.4 per cent in women.

Darryl O’Donnell, CEO of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, says the report is a reminder of the “staggering” impact of HIV/AIDS.

“The release of this data reminds us of the staggering scale of the global HIV and AIDS pandemics,” he tells SBS from Durban.

The increase in incidence in some countries, both in­ terms of rate and number of new infections, is one of the most significant findings of our study.

“While some progress is being made in getting life-saving treatment to people with HIV, the sheer numbers of people getting HIV and dying are devastating.”

The study showed that Australia’s HIV incidence rate had dropped by 2 per cent annually and that it was making significant progress to meeting the UNAIDS target, but Mr O’Donnell warns against complacency.

“In Australia, access to HIV testing, treatment, health care and community support mean we no longer see large numbers of people progressing to AIDS illness and death,” he says.

“We have the potential to dramatically drive down new HIV infections in Australia if we are given the right tools.”

For example, the once-a-day HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) pill has the potential to halve new HIV infections in Australia in the first 12 months if made readily available to those most at risk.

“In Australia, access to HIV testing, treatment, health care and community support mean we no longer see large numbers of people progressing to AIDS illness and death,” he says.

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