Drugmakers in the USA are currently testing 97 new products for the prevention or treatment of HIV/AIDS and related conditions, including 23 vaccines and 54 antivirals, says the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

These drugs are currently either in human clinical trials or awaiting approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), reports PhRMA, which adds that it is “greatly encouraged by these critically important medicines and vaccines now in R&D.

“As a result of HIV/AIDS medicines, a disease that was once a virtual death sentence can now be controlled and treated as if it were a chronic disease,” said PhRMA chief executive Billy Tauzin.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than a million Americans were living with HIV infection at the end of 2006, but the increased availability and utilization of newer prescription medicines has helped to reduce the US death rate from AIDS substantially in recent years. In fact, the CDC estimates that since the introduction of anti-retroviral therapy in 1995, the annual number of deaths in the US due to AIDS has dropped by more than 70%, notes PhRMA.

Meantime, a new report released yesterday estimates that new HIV infections worldwide have been reduced by 17% over the past eight years.

The 2009 AIDS Epidemic Update, issued by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO), says that, since 2001, the number of new infections in sub-Saharan Africa is approximately 15% lower, with about 400,000 fewer infections in 2008. HIV incidence in East Asia has declined nearly 25% and 10% in South and South East Asia over the period. In Eastern Europe, after a dramatic increase in new infections among injecting drug users, the epidemic has leveled off considerably. However, in some countries there are signs that HIV incidence is rising again, it cautions.

At an estimated 33.4 million worldwide, more people are living with HIV than ever before, and living longer due to the beneficial effects of antiretroviral (ARV) therapy and population growth, says the report. The number of AIDS-related deaths has declined over 10% over the past five years as more people have gained to access to life-saving ARV treatment, say UNAIDS and WHO, and they estimate that, since effective treatment first became available in 1996, some 2.9 million lives have been saved.

ARV therapy has also made a significant impact in preventing new infections in children, as more HIV-positive mothers gain access to treatment preventing them from transmitting the virus to their children. Around 200,000 new infections among children have been prevented since 2001, while in Botswana, where treatment coverage is 80%, AIDS-related deaths have fallen by over 50% over the past five years and the number of children newly orphaned is also coming down as parents are living longer.

“The good news is that we have evidence that the declines we are seeing are due, at least in part, to HIV prevention,” said Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, commenting on the report. “However, the findings also show that prevention programming is often off the mark and that if we do a better job of getting resources and programmes to where they will make most impact, quicker progress can be made and more lives saved,” he added.