Saturday, December 01, 2007

The 20th World Aids Day, and what's changed?

A student hands out ribbons at Edwardes College in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo / Reuters

A student hands out ribbons at Edwardes College in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo / Reuters

Does the news that the United Nations overestimated the number of HIV infections mean the world has turned the tide on AIDS?

Not according to the most of the media coverage ahead of the 20th World Aids Day today.

The fact that the United Nations got it wrong about the number of people living with the virus is simply "a sampling error", writes Donald McNeil in the International Herald Tribune.

The UN and the World Health Organisation "have eaten a lot of crow" for the mistake of miscalculating the number of infected, comments Los Angeles Times.

But the good news is that the pandemic has peaked, the papers say, most likely in the late 1990s. But that doesn't mean the world can relax and get complacent about AIDS. Even if the estimate of 2.5 million new infections this year is 40 per cent lower than the estimate for 2006, that's "not a particularly happy plateau," McNeil quotes Dr. Robert Gallo, who discovered the AIDS virus.

It's hard to get excited when more than 2 million people - most of them in sub-Saharan Africa - are still dying from the disease each year and 15 per cent of the population in eight countries in the south of the African continent are infected, says the International Herald Tribune in its editorial.

Take Zimbabwe, for example. This year has seen a drop in HIV prevalence rates in the country, but AIDS is still one of the biggest challenges the country faces, according to Owen Mugurungi, who heads the government's HIV/AIDS and TB unit, quoted by Zimbabwe's Financial Gazette. In a country with so many economic and political challenges right now, such a statement is not to be taken lightly. And the grim statistics back it up - we're talking about at least 2500 AIDS-related deaths a week in Zimbabwe.

Elizabeth Taylor, writing in USA Today, highlights the fact that the problem of AIDS is still very much present in the United States as well, in particular amongst the country's black population. The rate of HIV/AIDS diagnosis, for instance, is 20 times higher for black women than their white counterparts.

The Chinese papers acknowledge the fact that the stigma surrounding AIDS is a crucial problem in tackling the disease, but there's some good news. The Shanghai Daily reports that, according to Health Minister Chen Zhu, more than 40 per cent of sex workers now use condoms. This compares to less than 15 per cent six years ago and Zhu attributes it to the success of awareness programmes about the disease.

In India, the awareness campaigners still have a long way to go, judging by some of the results of a global study conducted by the MAC AIDS Fund. Almost 60 per cent of those surveyed believed there was a cure for AIDS and over 40 per cent said they wouldn't want to live in the same house as a person infected with the virus, The Hindu reports.

And if you thought Western Europe didn't have to battle misconceptions like that, a survey commissioned by the British Red Cross shows otherwise. One in seven young British people aged between 14 and 25 say they wouldn't stay friends with an HIV-infected person. According to a survey quoted by Britain's Mirror , the number is almost as high as in South Africa. And that's a country where about 19 per cent of the population is HIV-positive.

These reports from around the world show there's still a lot of work to be done fighting the pandemic and the prejudice that accompanies it. The latest revised figures are indeed good news and, as the IHT's McNeil points out, this is at least the sign that AIDS will eventually behave "like other pestilences" and there will, in the end, be a solution to one of the most deadly diseases the world has seen.

But right now, in the words of the LA Times' editorial: "(Any) way you count them, the millions of needless deaths from this disease are too many, and too little is being committed to solve the problem."