United Nations convenes annual meeting on AIDS to adopt an updated political declaration

Just days before researchers and activists around the world marked the 25th year of battling the HIV epidemic, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on HIV/AIDS convened in New York City to revise the "declaration of commitment" on AIDS, which was created at the first meeting of this kind held five years ago. This high-level event, which took place from May 31 to June 2, was attended by more than 10 heads of state and leaders from more than 140 UN member states, as well as over 1000 representatives from activist groups and other civil society organizations.

Although few of the goals laid out in the 2001 declaration adopted by the General Assembly were achieved, the total expenditure on AIDS in developing countries, which reached $8.3 billion last year, did fall within the target range set in the initial document. This money has in part provided treatment for the 1.3 million people now receiving antiretrovirals (ARVs), up from just 240,000 in 2001, and helped to quadruple the number of people accessing voluntary HIV counseling and testing services.

But now the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) estimates that $20-23 billion will be needed each year until 2010 to control the spread of AIDS and provide ARV treatment, care, and prevention services. The record number of civil society groups involved in the meeting pushed for the assembly to endorse a new target of providing ARVs to 80% of HIV-infected individuals in need and to an equal number of HIV-infected pregnant women to prevent them from transmitting the virus to their infants. However, after extensive negotiations many of the organizations involved, including the International AIDS Society and the International Council of AIDS Service Organizations, were disappointed with the final declaration.

Many said that it failed to set concrete goals for the future by which progress could be measured. Prior to the meeting IAVI and its partners worked to ensure that the UN leaders recognized how research into new prevention technologies, like vaccines and microbicides, could play an important role in combating the epidemic in the future. In the final declaration AIDS vaccines were acknowledged as crucial to global public health.

Just before UNGASS took place, UNAIDS also released the 2006 Report on the global AIDS epidemic. This report cited a slowdown in the global epidemic for the first time, highlighted by a decline in HIV prevalence in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, Haiti, and other countries in the Caribbean. But even as infection rates are dropping in some areas, the overall number of people dying from AIDS or AIDS-related illnesses continues to rise. Increasing HIV prevalence was reported in several countries, including China, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Vietnam, and there is evidence of possible "HIV outbreaks" in Bangladesh and Pakistan, according to UNAIDS.

This report also declared India as the nation with the highest number of HIV-infected individuals at 5.7 million, surpassing South Africa, which still has the greatest prevalence owing to its much smaller population. While HIV prevalence is declining in four Indian states the epidemic in South Africa shows no evidence of decline.