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Where We Are Now: World AIDS Day Sees Release of New Global Statistics

By L. K. Regan

Tuesday, December 1st is World AIDS Day, marked by remembrances and awareness-raising events around the globe. Yet on the 21st observance of this day, and nearly three decades after the discovery of HIV, there is still an enormous amount of ground to cover. Nothing makes this more clear than the release of hard numbers on HIV/AIDS worldwide, released by a joint commission and timed to coincide with this week's commemoration.

The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have released their 2009 AIDS update, giving World AIDS Day a direct numerical accounting. These agencies report that worldwide, new infections are down by 17 percent since 2001, with a 15 percent drop in sub-Saharan Africa, the world's HIV hot-zone. Before we celebrate, however, we might look at some of the more troubling numbers in the report. Globally, 33.4 million people are living with HIV, over two million of them children under the age of 15. In 2008, 2.7 million people were newly infected, and two million died—including 280,000 children.

These numbers are empirically high, and they continue to rise. As the UNAIDS/WHO report states, "The total number of people living with the virus in 2008 was more than 20 percent higher than the number in 2000, and the prevalence was roughly threefold higher than in 1990." In a sense, however, these high numbers are a sign not only of, as the report says, "continued high rates of new HIV infections," but also of "the beneficial impact of antiretroviral therapy." As the report states, "As of December 2008, approximately 4 million people in low- and middle-income countries were receiving antiretroviral therapy—a 10-fold increase over five years." The high numbers are, in part, a consequence of our success in treatment: deaths from AIDS are down in many places, but the number of people living with HIV is up thanks to better access to treatments.

Globally, the report says, HIV's spread peaked in 1996 with 3.5 million new infections in a single year, and deaths from the virus were at their highest in 2004. This eight-year gap between the two peak numbers foretells a grim future in the near term: because of the long lag-time between infection and symptoms, the report states, "AIDS-related illnesses remain one of the leading causes of death globally and are projected to continue as a significant global cause of premature mortality in the coming decades." Even as global death rates from HIV/AIDS decline thanks to better treatment, the disease continues to take an awful toll.

Each year, the president of the United States makes a statement in commemoration of World AIDS Day. This year, President Obama's remarks took note of the UNAIDS/WHO numbers, and put them into context for Americans, noting that, "Though we have been witness to incredible progress, our struggle against HIV/AIDS is far from over. With an infection occurring every nine-and-a-half minutes in America, there are more than one million individuals estimated to be living with the disease in our country." The president continued with the implications of that number: "Of those currently infected," the presidential statement says, "one in five does not know they have the condition, and the majority of new infections are spread by people who are unaware of their own status. HIV/AIDS does not discriminate as it infiltrates neighborhoods and communities. Americans of any gender, age, ethnicity, income, or sexual orientation can and are contracting the disease." Given these troubling numbers, World AIDS Day is an opportunity to recommit to the fight, both at home and around the world.

World AIDS Day will be marked by vigils, memorials and testimonials world-wide. To find a World AIDS Day event in your city, click here.