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UNAIDS and WHO release new report on global epidemic

In advance of World AIDS Day, which was observed on December 1, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report detailing updated global and regional estimates of the number of people newly HIV infected in 2006 (UNAIDS/WHO AIDS Epidemic Update: December 2006). Twenty-five years after the first cases of AIDS were reported the epidemic is still spreading relentlessly around the globe. In 2006 alone, 4.3 million people were newly infected with HIV, bringing the total number of people living with HIV/AIDS to 39.5 million.

Since 2004 the number of people living with HIV increased in every region of the world. In some regions these new infections are disproportionately occurring in young people. In the Russian Federation, 80% of HIV-infected individuals are younger than 30 years old. The primary route of transmission in the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia is still injection drug use and 67% of HIV infections in 2005 were a result of people injecting drugs with contaminated needles and syringes (see Spotlight article).

However, in eight African countries where sufficient data was available, HIV prevalence has declined among young people since 2000/2001. This trend is attributed to the success of HIV prevention messages targeting this age group that encourage young people to avoid behaviors that place them at risk of HIV infection. Throughout the world women are also continuing to bear the brunt of the HIV epidemic. In sub-Saharan Africa 59% of the people living with HIV/AIDS are now women.

Despite promising advancements in the availability of HIV treatment in developing countries, 2.9 million people died from AIDS in 2006—the highest number ever reported for a single year. The vast majority of these deaths (72%) occurred in sub-Saharan Africa where the epidemic is still having the greatest impact, but worldwide AIDS is now the leading cause of death in people between the ages of 15 and 59.

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day was accountability and Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations, said in a USA Today editorial that, "as the number of infections continues unabated, we need to mobilize political will as never before." He called on every prime minister, president, parliamentarian, and politician to strengthen protections for vulnerable groups, including people living with HIV, young people, commercial sex workers, injection drug users (IDUs), or men who have sex with men. Both UNAIDS and WHO emphasize the need to increase and improve prevention efforts that target people who are at greatest risk of HIV infection.