Critics say that the world organization's aim of wiping out the disease is overly optimistic, however, considering there is no vaccine, millions remain untreated and donations have slumped amid the economic crisis.
World AIDS Day is held annually to raise awareness about the more than 25 million people who have died of the disease in the past 30 years.
There were 2.7 million new HIV infections last year, about the same figure as in the three previous years, said the report from UNAIDS, the joint United Nations program on HIV and AIDS. The figures largely confirm earlier findings released by the group in June.
At the end of last year, there were about 34 million people with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. While that is a slight rise from previous years, experts say that's due to people surviving longer. Last year, there were 1.8 million AIDS-related deaths, down from 1.9 million in 2009.
The outbreak continues to hit hardest in southern Africa. But while the number of new infections in that region has fallen by more than 26 percent since the peak in 1997, the virus is surging elsewhere.
In eastern Europe and central Asia, there has been a 250 percent jump in the number of people infected with HIV in the past decade, due largely to the spread among injecting drug users. In North America and
western Europe, the outbreak “remains stubbornly steady,” according to the report.
“It's looking promising but the numbers are still at a scary level,” said Sophie Harman, a global health expert at City University in London. She was not connected to the UNAIDS report.
In its strategy for the next few years, UNAIDS says it is working toward zero new HIV infections, zero
discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths. Harman said that was an admirable goal but she
wasn't sure it was achievable. “They need to get real,” she said. “Maybe they need to aim high but if their main goal is eradication it's highly unlikely that will ever happen.”
Paul De Lay, deputy executive director of UNAIDS, acknowledged the idea of eliminating AIDS infections and deaths is “more of a vision for the future” and would likely not be accomplished without new tools like a vaccine, which could take several decades to develop. In November, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for an AIDS-free generation and promised more money for programs in Africa.
De Lay said U.N. strategies will focus on more aggressive prevention and treatment policies, like treating people with HIV earlier. In Africa, people with HIV are not usually treated until their immune system reaches a certain threshold and officials are now increasingly trying to start treatment before patients get too sick.
Future strategies might also include giving medicines to people at high risk even before they get infected. The World Health Organization is considering how to advise countries with major epidemics on giving drugs to healthy people vulnerable to catching the virus, such as prostitutes, gay men and injecting drug users, as a prevention method.
While studies have shown that could dramatically slow AIDS transmission, experts have voiced concerns about healthy people taking AIDS drugs, which have toxic side effects, and encourage drug resistance.
ON THE NET