WEDNESDAY, July 16, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- A new United Nations report suggests that the AIDS epidemic might be waning: The number of new HIV infections worldwide is at a record low, AIDS-related deaths are down 35 percent, and more people with HIV are getting the lifesaving medications they need.
International health officials even set a tentative date for the planned demise of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
"If we accelerate all HIV scale-up [increased efforts to fight the virus] by 2020, we will be on track to end the epidemic by 2030," Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, said in an agency news release. "If not, we risk significantly increasing the time it would take -- adding a decade, if not more."
At the end of 2013, an estimated 35 million people worldwide were living with HIV, according to the UNAIDS report, which was released Wednesday.
However, the trend in recent years is promising. In the last three years, new HIV infections have dropped 13 percent, and the 2.1 million new HIV infections reported last year are the fewest since the turn of the century.
New HIV infections among children fell by 58 percent since 2001, and are below 200,000 for the first time in the 21 most affected countries in Africa.
The largest decline in new infections was in the Caribbean -- 40 percent since 2005, the researchers noted. But new infections did increase 8 percent in western Europe and North America, 7 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, and 5 percent in eastern Europe and central Asia since 2005.
The news on AIDS-related deaths worldwide was also heartening, with statistics showing a 35 percent decline after the number of deaths peaked in 2005. AIDS-related deaths did increase by 66 percent in the Middle East and North Africa. The only other regions where AIDS-related deaths are rising are eastern Europe and central Asia, where the death toll increased 5 percent between 2005 and 2013. Tuberculosis remains the leading cause of death among people with HIV.
Also, a growing number of people with HIV are receiving lifesaving antiretroviral drugs. In 2013, 2.3 million more patients gained access to the medications, boosting the total number to nearly 13 million by the end of 2013. As of now, that number could be as high as nearly 14 million, according to UNAIDS.
In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 90 percent of people who know they have HIV are receiving treatment, the findings showed.
Ending the HIV epidemic by 2030 would prevent 18 million new infections and 11.2 million AIDS-related deaths between 2013 and 2030, U.N. officials noted.
However, some experts questioned the wisdom of setting such a high goal.
"We've made progress, but the number of people getting infected is still extraordinarily high," Shabbar Jaffar, a professor of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the Associated Press. Jaffar added that boosting efforts to fight the disease in Africa, where almost 70 percent of people with HIV live, would be hard because "they [health officials] are already working beyond capacity at the moment."
While there was good news in the report, it also noted that 19 million of the 35 million people worldwide who are infected with HIV do not know they have the virus.
"Whether you live or die should not depend on access to an HIV test," Sidibe said. "Smarter scale-up is needed to close the gap between people who know their HIV status and people who don't, people who can get services and people who can't, and people who are protected and people who are punished."
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about HIV/AIDS.
SOURCES: UNAIDS, news release, July 16, 2014; Associated Press