AIDS is leading cause of death of African children and second most common killer of adolescents globally, UNICEF says.
The African continent is the only region to have recorded a consistent drop in new HIV infections since 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on World AIDS Day on Tuesday, Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said the continent had continued to make remarkable strides in ending the AIDS pandemic – with the latest statistics showing that new infections had been reduced by 41 percent between 2000 and 2014.
“Over the past 15 years, there has been substantial progress, both curbing deaths from HIV/AIDS and reducing new infections across the WHO Africa Region – which includes 47 of the continent’s countries,” Moeti told Al Jazeera from Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, where leaders of African nations are gathered for a conference on AIDS.
“I’m proud to report that the Africa Region registered a consistent drop in new infections after 2010 – the only region to do so.”
Moeti’s comments came as the world marked the World AIDS day on Tuesday. There are currently 36.9 million people living with HIV, including more than 2.6 million children. It is estimated that some 34 million people have died since the virus was identified.
Though the global health body reported a series of triumphs over the past decade, it acknowledged that the number of new infections continued to remain high, with young women and adolescent girls facing disproportionate high risks of infection.
Sophie Barton-Knott, from UNAIDS, said the agency tasked with managing the global pandemic strongly believed that adopting the “fast-track approach”, an approach focusing on testing and treatment, would facilitate the end of AIDS as a public health crisis by 2030.
“To do this there needs to be a massive scale up in HIV testing – more than 17 million people living with HIV do not know their HIV status and 21.1 million people are not yet accessing treatment,” Barton-Knott said.
Changing the narrative
According to the WHO, AIDS treatment had reached some 15.8 million people by mid-2015, with 11 million said to be in Africa alone. In 2000, just 11,000 people were receiving treatment on the continent.
Experts agree that access to treatment has been a game-changer in the larger story of AIDS on the African continent.
Kaymarlin Govender, research director at Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division (HEARD), at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, told Al Jazeera that the increased levels of biomedical interventions, including treatment, had changed the narrative.
The WHO also said the numbers of AIDS-related deaths worldwide had decreased by 24 percent between 2000 and 2014, and over 40 percent since 2004 – the year considered the peak in AIDS-related deaths.
While there were some two million new infections in 2014, this was the lowest number since 1990. In some African countries, the number of new infections were 50 percent lower than the figure in 2000.
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Govender said it was not possible to talk of “an end to HIV infections”, but said that if more people had access to treatment, and led better quality lives then “an end to AIDS is realistic”.
But the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a South African-based movement focusing on issues of access to medical treatment, criticised both the WHO and UNAIDS for “trying to push a good story”.
“There are two sides to the issue. One one hand, people are living longer and there is real progress. On the other hand, the rate of new infections are very high,” Marcus Low, head of policy at the TAC, said.
“We are very concerned about the future of global AIDS response. It seems that the political will is on the wane internationally and investment to fight the epidemic is simply not there.”
Likewise, Doctors without Borders (MSF) cited “cumbersome procedures, logistical challenges or lack of resources” as reasons for medicines not reaching some of Africa’s most needy patients.
AIDS is the number one cause of death among adolescents on the continent and the second among adolescents globally.
In a new report released on Tuesday in Harare, MSF said that improving the delivery of medication required the commitment of countries and international donors.
“But how can patients be expected to remain adherent to their treatment if their medicines are not available when and where they need them?”
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Govender, research director at HEARD, said getting the right people onto medication and securing enough resources to carry the project forward was still the biggest challenge.
Responding to the concerns from TAC and MSF, Barton-Knott, from UNAIDS acknowledged that the current global landscape for aid was complex, but denied the claim that political will was waning to address the scourge.
“AIDS is unfinished business which is why the UN has included ending AIDS by 2030 in the new Sustainable Development Goals. UNAIDS will work with partners, especially civil society partners including [the] TAC, to ensure that AIDS remains high on the political agenda until it is finished business and no longer a public health threat,” she said.
According to the UN, the global response to HIV has averted 30 million new HIV infections and nearly eight million deaths since 2000.