Changing AIDS profile

A young African woman is now the typical «face of AIDS,» a disease that has infected 65 million people around the world over the past quarter-century and continues to spread relentlessly. Peter Piot, executive director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/ AIDS (UNAIDS), spoke with Kathimerini about the current state of the epidemic and UNAIDS efforts which have brought about «progress, but at a slow rate.» What is the current situation worldwide regarding AIDS? AIDS was indentified for the first time in June 1981 in five men, all homosexuals. Today, 40 million people around the world are living with the virus, and 25 million have died of it. That is, within 25 years 65 million people have been infected with the disease. The continent most affected is Africa, where some countries are seeing record numbers of cases. In Swaziland, for example, 46 percent of the adult population have become infected. Still, the greatest escalation of the disease is in Eastern Europe, and this can have a negative effect on Greece because of immigration from that region. Are there any hopeful developments? Yes, there are. In eastern African states such as Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe, there has been a reduction in the number of new cases, largely due to the efforts to introduce preventive measures and also because of the changing sexual behavior of the population. The same has been observed in the Caribbean. More women Have there been any changes in recent years in the appearance of the epidemic? AIDS began as a disease affecting white, middle-aged homosexual men. Today the «profile» of the AIDS patient is that of a young woman in Africa. On a world level, the disease affects as many women as men, but in Africa 60 percent of the victims are women. That is, we are seeing a «feminization» of the epidemic. This is partly due to biological factors but chiefly because of women’s passive position in society. Many women who have been infected have just one sexual partner, and that is usually their husband. This is very worrying and means that we have to focus on the male behavior, which appears to be leading to the epidemic. Also of concern is the fact that in regions such as Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, most infections are due to the sharing of syringes by drug addicts. One of the most serious problems, especially in Africa, is patient access to treatment. What is UNAIDS doing about that? At the moment over 1 million people in Africa are receiving treatment within the UNAIDS and World Health Organization programs. Nevertheless there are still 6 million AIDS patients needing treatment. On the other hand, this is an improvement on the situation two years ago, when just 100,000 Africans were receiving treatment. We are making progress but it is very slow. If we are to speed up the rate we need greater funding and for the governments in Africa to display the will to do more about the problem. In Greece In Greece, the number of new cases grew by 25 percent between 2004 and 2005. Is that an isolated phenomenon? There has been an increase in the number of new cases in nearly all Western European countries in the past five years. The rate of increase in Greece is high and is cause for concern. Since anti-retroviral drugs have become available; in Greece they are issued free of charge and I must say that your country has done excellent work in this area – people in the Western world have begun to think the disease is curable. This view has been supported by the fact that there is only a small number of AIDS patients in Europe, so for most people the disease is just a statistic. I believe that what is needed, not only in Greece but elsewhere in Western Europe, is a new information campaign on how the disease is contracted. It should focus on teenagers and on specific target groups, such as homosexuals.