UNAIDS confirms live-saving drugs have dramatically increased HIV patients

In its annual report on the pandemic, United Nations AID programme (UNAIDS) has confirmed that more people than ever are living with the AIDS virus but this is largely due to better access to drugs that keep HIV patients alive and well for many years.

In its annual report on the pandemic, UNAIDS said the number of people dying of the disease fell to 1.8 million in 2010, down from a peak of 2.2 million in the mid-2000s.

UNAIDS director Michel Sidibe said the past 12 months had been a "game-changing year" in the global AIDS fight.

Some 2.5 million deaths have been averted in poor and middle-income countries since 1995 due to AIDS drugs being introduced and access to them is improving, according to UNAIDS.

Much of that success has come in the past two years as the number of people getting treatment has increased rapidly.

"We’ve never had a year when there has been so much science, so much leadership and such results in one year," Sidibe said in a telephone interview from UNAIDS headquarters in Geneva.

"Even in this time of public finance crises and uncertainty about funding, we’re seeing results. We are seeing more countries than ever before (achieving) significant reductions in new infections and stabilizing their epidemics."

Since the beginning of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s, more than 60 million people have been infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. HIV can be controlled for many years with cocktails of drugs, but there is as yet no cure.

Despite progress on HIV treatment and prevention, sub-Saharan Africa is still by far the worst hit, accounting for 68% of all those living with HIV in 2010 despite its population accounting for only 12% of the global total.

Around 70% of new HIV infections in 2010, and almost half of all AIDS-related deaths, were in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sidibe said with many international donor countries struggling with slow economic growth and high debt, the global AIDS fight had to become even more focused on high impact interventions to deliver progress in the places worst hit.

"We need to maintain our investment, but … in a smarter way. "Then we’ll see a serious decline in the epidemic," he said.