The United Nations said in a report released Thursday the "scales have tipped" for the first time in the fight against AIDS, with more than half of people infected with HIV now on drugs to treat the virus.
According to the report, about 19.5 million of the 36.5 million people who are HIV-positive were taking AIDS drugs in 2016, compared to 17.1 million the previous year.
“We met the 2015 target of 15 million people on treatment and we are on track to double that number to 30 million and meet the 2020 target,” said Michel Sidibe, Executive Director of UNAIDS. “We will continue to scale up to reach everyone in need and honor our commitment of leaving no one behind.”
The report also said AIDS-related deaths have declined by nearly half since their peak of 1.9 million in 2005, although those figures are based on estimates and not actual numbers from countries.
Eastern and Southern Africa are showing the most progress, reducing AIDS-related deaths by 42 percent and new HIV infections by nearly 30 percent since 2010, the report said.
It also noted that about three-quarters of pregnant women with HIV now have access to medicines to prevent them from passing it to their babies. Five hard-hit African countries now provide lifelong AIDS drugs to 95 percent of pregnant and breast-feeding women with the virus.
“For more than 35 years, the world has grappled with an AIDS epidemic that has claimed an estimated 35 million lives.” the report said.
Experts applauded the progress, but questioned if the billions spent in the past two decades should have brought more impressive results.
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“When you think about the money that’s been spent on AIDS, it could have been better,” said Sophie Harman, a senior lecturer in global health politics at Queen Mary University in London.
UNAIDS said globally there has been significant progress, but "there is still more work to do."
"Around 30 percent of people living with HIV still do not know their HIV status, while 17.1 million people living with HIV do not have access to antiretroviral therapy and more than half of all people living with HIV are not virally suppressed," the agency said.
Harman warned that the real test will come in five to 10 years once the funding to various AIDS programs goes down and a complete elimination of AIDS was unrealistic.
“It’s bold and no one would ever disagree with the idea of ending AIDS, but I think we should be pragmatic,” she said. “I don’t think we will ever eliminate AIDS, so it’s possible this will give people the wrong idea.”