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October 1, 2009

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Millions now getting AIDS drugs, UN says

UNITED Nations health officials estimate about 4 million people who need AIDS drugs worldwide are now getting them, according to a report issued yesterday.

The figure represents a major increase in rolling out the drugs to patients across Africa, where the AIDS epidemic is focused, but an estimated 5 million or more across the globe are still waiting for the drugs.

The numbers, based on incomplete data, are only a guess. They were released in an annual AIDS report jointly published by the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the UN AIDS program.

"There remain uncertainties related to the quality of data reported," officials wrote. Of the UN's 192 member countries, 158 provided government-approved data, most of which were not independently verified.

"Even though some of the data are not fully clear and there are some unanswered questions, this is a dramatic improvement," said Daniel Halperin, an AIDS expert at Harvard University. "It shows that all this money that has gone to treatment has made some difference."

In 2008, officials estimated more than 4 million people were on AIDS drugs in low- and middle-income countries, a 10-fold jump in five years. The biggest increase was in sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly 3 million people are now on the drugs.

Overall, about 44 percent of people with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa who need AIDS drugs now take them.

"It's actually not radically less coverage than you would get in Europe or the US," Halperin said. In the US, about 71 percent of patients who need the AIDS drugs are taking them, according to 2003 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We have invested a lot of funds into HIV/AIDS, but it has been a worthwhile investment because we have saved lives," said Dr Teguest Guerma, WHO's acting AIDS director.

Last year, the global community spent nearly US$9 billion on AIDS. For every dollar spent on public health, AIDS gets about 23 US cents. It causes about 4 percent of deaths globally.


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