More Than Numbers Make the Fight

Masimba Biriwasha

The new AIDS data -- indicating that the number of cases of HIV worldwide is not as high as previously estimated -- must be seen as a call to vigilance.

On World AIDS Day, December 1, much was said about the recently published UNAIDS global HIV/AIDS estimates for 2007 that revealed the global HIV prevalence has leveled off.

If anything, the newly revised estimates – rather than being a cause célèbre – clearly show that there's still much work to do in the fight against the AIDS epidemic.

Already, UNAIDS has attracted a maelstrom of criticisms and accusations for bloating figures in the past years in order to attract financial and political support for the AIDS cause.

According to UNAIDS, the number of new infections fell from 40 million estimated last year to 33.2 million.

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"The downward revision is largely due to improved methodology, an increase in sentinel surveillance sites and population-based household surveys, and changes in key epidemiological assumptions used to calculate the estimates," stated an editorial in The Lancet.

"Revised figures for India account for much of the decrease, followed by several sub-Saharan African countries, including Nigeria, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Angola."

Whatever the case, the report clearly indicates that far too many people are dying everyday, making it imperative to strengthen efforts to fight the epidemic.

In 2007 alone, over 5700 people died each day from AIDS-related and 6800 people are still being infected with HIV daily, about 1200 of whom are children under 15 and about 2900 are women 15 years and older.

Young people are particularly affected by HIV and AIDS – about 40% of the 2.5 million new infections each year occur in people aged 15 to 24.1

"Resources for information services, health care, medicines, and support services still fall far short of need, stigma and discrimination are rampant, and gender inequality, violence, and poverty deny access for people to accurate information, prevention, testing, counselling and treatment. While these conditions still exist, HIV will continue to spread," said the Global Steering Committee (GSC) of the World AIDS Campaign in response to the new data.

As a matter of fact, in HIV and AIDS work, numbers alone cannot completely paint a picture of the devastation that the epidemic has caused in its wake.

Behind the figures are individuals, families, and whole communities that are bearing the brunt of the epidemic. Many of these people exist at the margins of society, amidst shocking levels of poverty and lack of access to basic services such as water, sanitation, health and education.

The Lancet correctly notes that focusing on numbers alone is missing the point. Only history will reveal the true toll of the epidemic, including the tremendous levels of human suffering.

"The global trends described in this report are equally important. In the future it is likely that there will be two different kinds of epidemics-a generalised one centred in sub-Saharan Africa and a concentrated one in specific high-risk groups worldwide. Responding to these different epidemics correctly will be key," states the publication.

Put simply, UNAIDS' global HIV/AIDS estimates 2007 reveal that it's a fallacy to say that AIDS is and sub-Saharan epidemic only.

A cursory analysis shows that with certain pockets of society in USA such as gay men and black women to injecting drug users in Eastern Europe, HIV infection is on the rise.

Any let-up to the momentum that has been created in the past three decades of fighting HIV will only see an exponential rise of the disease. More anything else, the new AIDS data must be seen as a call to vigilance.

"In a battle with a disease that has had too few signs of hope, this report signals some good news. Being more certain of the numbers should help policymakers, civil society, and governments to plan, mobilise resources, and implement activities more effectively to overcome HIV," says The Lancet.

"These new figures should also strengthen commitment and action in the face of a pandemic that can be defeated."

With the tools available to fight HIV and AIDS at our disposal, no one deserves to get infected or die. The good work that has been done in the past to face up to the epidemic must be expanded and replicated, and more effort must be made to reach the marginalized populations across the world.

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