HIV/AIDS in southern Africa appears to be stabilising but there is no room for complacency, according to 2007 UNAIDS annual HIV/AIDS statistics released on Tuesday.

South Africa still has the largest HIV positive population in the world, but adult HIV prevalence is either stable or has started to decline – like many other countries in southern, eastern and western Africa.

Declining HIV rates were most striking in Kenya and Zimbabwe, according to the report, while Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and urban Burkina Faso also experienced declines.

In southern Africa, “while there is evidence of a significant decline in the national HIV prevalence in Zimbabwe, the epidemics in most of the rest of the sub-region have either reached or are approaching a plateau,” said the report.

“Only in Mozambique, latest HIV data has shown an increase in prevalence over the previous period.”

UNAIDS estimates that there are some 33.2 million people living with HIV in the world – over six million fewer than last year’s estimate.

However, the main reason for this reduction in numbers is related to how the numbers have been estimated rather than effective prevention campaigns – although there was encouraging evidence of risk reduction in 11 countries.

Speaking from Geneva, Dr Paul De Lay, UNAIDS Director of Evidence, Monitoring and Policy, said the reduction in the numbers was due to “methodology.”

HIV prevalence had been particularly overestimated in India, and to a lesser extent in Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

“Better data collection, better epidemiology and a better understanding of the disease, especially survival time, had contributed to the reductions,” said De Lay.

People with HIV in both the developed and developing world were now estimated to live for an average of 11 years after infection, which was slightly longer than previously though, added De Lay.

De Lay rejected the notion that UNAIDS had initially over-estimated HIV statistics in order to get donors to allocate more resources to HIV/AIDS.

“It is critical that countries understand the epidemic as accurately as possible.. so we try to avoid any politicization of data collection or how estimates are performed,” he said.

Southern Africa remains the worst hit area in the world, accounting for over one-third of all new infections and deaths globally. Some 1.6 million people have died of AIDS in the sub-Saharan Africa in the past year.

Over 15% of adults were living with HIV in eight southern African countries, namely Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Of all the African countries, Kenya seems to have done best over the past year at combating HIV, with HIV among young pregnant women reported to have been slashed by more than a quarter.

Côte d’Ivoire, Malawi and Zimbabwe and rural Botswana also reported significant decreases in infection rates amongst young women.

However, UNAIDS officials also cautioned that the levelling off of HIV prevalence did not mean that HIV/AIDS was now under control.

“HIV/AIDS remains the leading epidemic in the world, and the long term nature of the epidemic, with acute infection that manifests itself as a chronic disease over a long period, means we are going to be dealing with this for years to come,” said Dr Kevin de Cock, director of HIV/AIDS at the World Health Organisation (WHO).

De Lay also cautioned that countries that had become complacent about HIV and relaxed their prevention efforts – such as the USA, Britain and Germany – “have seen a return of the epidemic”.

De Cock also cautioned that it would be “unrealistic to think that the reduction in estimates would have a major beneficial effect on reducing the resources necessary for antiretroviral therapy” as sub-optimal treatment was being used in the developing world.

“Treatment is started too late and the drug regimens being used, while cheaper are also more toxic and there is a need to adapt to more patient-friendly regimens that might cost more,” said De Cock.

However, De Lay said that based on current reduced estimates by 2010, there could be a 5% reduction in global HIV/AIDS budget.

Kerry Cullinan

Health-e News Service

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