HIV infections fall 30% in eastern and southern Africa

New HIV infections have declined 30% in eastern and southern Africa over the past decade, according to a report released by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) on Tuesday.

The report shows new infections in the region declined from 1.7-million in 2001 to 1.3-million in 2011.

However, the region continues to have the highest number of people living with HIV in the world.

An estimated 17-million people living with the virus reside in eastern and southern Africa, representing 50% of the global HIV burden.

There has also been a 38% reduction in the number of people dying from AIDS-related causes in the region — from 1,3-million in 2005 to 800,000 in 2011.

The decrease is largely due to a tenfold increase in access to antiretroviral (ARV) treatment over the period, says UNAIDS.

By the end of 2012 there were 6.3-million HIV-positive people on ARV treatment in the region, accounting for 65% of the infected population globally.

South Africa, with an estimated population of more than 5-million believed to be HIV-positive, has about 2.1-million people on ARV treatment.

UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibé said the report shows an encouraging transition from the epicentre of a crisis to hope.

"We’re moving (away) from despair to hope; we’re seeing new infections being stabilised or reduced."

He said this was due to a combination of different forces, including committed political leadership, civil society and an increase in government funding.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said research shows that the rollout of treatment is also a preventative measure. He plans to put 3-million people on ARV treatment in 2015.

South Africa is particularly focused on preventing mother-to-child transmission by the early enrollment of pregnant women onto ARV therapy. It’s now one of the eight countries globally experiencing a rapid decline in the number of children acquiring HIV.

The region as whole, however, was lagging in extending treatment to infected children. Only 33% of children eligible for treatment were treated in 2011, a poor performance considering that 55% of all infected children in the world live in the region.

Mr Sidibé said the poor coverage of children in treatment was mainly due to HIV diagnosis not being very efficient on children as it is on adults. Another reason was that the existing treatment regime is generally suitable for adults.

The report also shows that new infection of young people between ages of 15 and 24 remains high in the region — 540,000 in 2011. Of particular concern is that HIV prevalence among young women was 4.5% in 2011, more than double the prevalence in their male counterparts.

Countries also continue to battle dealing with the stigmatisation of those infected. The torture, rape and murder of HIV-positive gays and lesbians remains a major issue, said Prudence Mabele, of the National Association of People Living with HIV and AIDS of South Africa.

She said this discouraged infected people from coming out and seeking support.

While the increasing rollout of ARV treatment has been lauded by civil society, there are concerns about its long-term sustainability. Donor funding has slowed in recent years.

Mr Sidibé said augmenting the shortfall has been an increase in funding by governments in the region.

For instance, the South Africa, Botswana and Seychelles governments provide up to 75% of HIV/AIDS funding from their fiscus.

Also helping out is that countries have been able to drastically reduce the cost of administering HIV/AIDS programmes. South Africa, for example, now spends R89 a month on each person on ARV treatment, a significant drop from the R313 it was spending a few years back.

UNAIDS, PLHIV, HIV, AIDS, children, ART, ARVs, HIV prevalence, HIV infections