Claims that the prevalence of HIV has levelled off are being treated with a caution bordering on disbelief by some AIDS groups who feel that the latest figures to be presented do not tell the whole story.

The latest findings, released by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organisation, state that the number of new infections has fallen and that in 2007 33.2 million people are estimated to be living with HIV. Using an “improved methodology”, the figures for 2006 have been revised down from 39.5 million sufferers to $32.7 million.

An estimated 22.5 million people living with HIV, or 68% of the global total, are in sub-Saharan Africa, while since 2001, when the United Nations Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS was signed, the number of people living with the virus in eastern Europe and central Asia has increased by more than 150% to 1.6 million. Indonesia has the fastest growing epidemic, the report adds.

The WHO and UNAIDS also note that the number of people dying from AIDS-related illnesses has declined in the last two years, “due in part to the life-prolonging effects of antiretroviral therapy”. UNAIDS executive director Peter Piot said that the improved data “present us with a clearer picture of the AIDS epidemic, one that reveals both challenges and opportunities”.

He added that “unquestionably, we are beginning to see a return on investment — new HIV infections and mortality are declining and the prevalence of HIV levelling”. Nevertheless, “with more than 6,800 new
infections and over 5,700 deaths each day due to AIDS we must expand our efforts in order to significantly reduce the impact”.

The figures provoked a hostile response from the USA’s largest and oldest AIDS support organisation. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s president, Michael Weinstein said that “because the vast majority of people who are infected with HIV don’t know it, there is actually no way to know if this new WHO figure…is any more reliable than the previous estimation”. He added that “there is certainly no basis for believing that half as many people were infected this year than last”.

Noting that “there is certainly reason for scepticism when the numbers shift around so wildly”, Mr Weinstein added that “these figures are rough numbers based upon extrapolations gleaned from unreliable data since so few people are being tested. Let’s stop guessing and make routing testing worldwide a priority”. He concluded by noting that this latest drop is in part being attributed to a recent slashing of infection rates in India from nearly six million to three million, “almost too severe a drop to be believed”. Saying it is clear that greater transparency is needed, the AHF president claimed that “such radical drops in the WHO’s numbers unfortunately discredit not only the old numbers but the new.”