As the United Nations summit on meeting the 'millennium development goals' gets underway, data has been released suggesting that one of them, stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS, is going particularly well in Africa.

UNAIDS has published figures which show that countries with the largest epidemics in Africa -  Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe - are leading the drop in new HIV infections. Between 2001 and 2009, 22 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have seen a decline of more than 25% and the number of new HIV infections "is steadily falling or stabilising in most parts of the world".

Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS executive director, said that "for the first time, change is happening at the heart of the epidemic. In places where HIV was stealing away dreams, we now have hope.” However the agency notes that "challenges remain" as Eastern Europe and Central Asia continue to have expanding HIV epidemics. Also, "in several high-income countries, there has been a resurgence of HIV infections among men who have sex with men".

UNAIDS noted that there are now 5.2 million people on HIV treatment, which is a 12-fold increase in six years. AIDS deaths have dropped significantly since the widespread availability of treatment and there were 200,000 fewer deaths in 2008 than in 2004.

As for achieving the sixth millennium development goal (MDG6) of halting and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015, Mr Sidibe said further R&D spending is needed. He added that “at this turning point, flat-lining or reductions in investments will set-back the AIDS response and threaten the world’s ability to reach MDG6”. There are eight MDGs in total, topped by eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.

Meantime, Haruo Naito, chief executive of Eisai and president of the  International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, said that "a longer-term effort is needed to further reduce global health inequalities, and I therefore encourage our industry to maintain its MDG-related efforts beyond the 2015 horizon". He added that the research-based pharmaceutical industry "plays a unique role in improving health - we cannot fix health inequalities on our own, but we need to keep playing our part".