By Staff Reporter
The world has passed an important tipping point in the fight against Aids, according to data showing that more people gained access to HIV drugs last year than became infected with the virus.
This marks the first time since antiretroviral medicines were introduced 27 years ago that treatment of HIV has expanded at a higher rate than incidence of the virus itself.
“We’re not saying the end of Aids is near but we have reached an important milestone where, for the first time, we are getting ahead of the disease,” said Erin Hohlfelder, health policy director for One, the anti-poverty campaign group that highlighted the inflection point in a report to mark Monday’s World Aids Day.
In 2013 – the most recent year for which data are available – 2.3m people were added to HIV treatment programmes compared with 2.1m new infections.
This marked an improvement from the year before when 1.6m people gained access to medicines for the first time while 2.2m were newly infected.
The data highlight the progress made by the multibillion-dollar international effort to curb the spread of HIV, with antiretroviral drugs now reaching 13.6m people around the world.
However, this still represents less than half the estimated 35m people living with HIV and Ms Hohlfelder warned there was a long way to go before victory could be declared.
“We’ve passed the tipping point globally but not all countries are there yet, and the gains made can easily stall or unravel.”
Global funding for anti-HIV programmes reached an all-time high of $19.1bn last year but this is still below the annual $22bn-24bn that the UN says is needed.
Ms Hohlfelder said middle-income countries were beginning to contribute more but the three leading donors – the US, France and Britain – were carrying an “unsustainable” share of the burden.
“Many donor countries – such as Australia, Japan and some in the Middle East – really haven’t stepped up as much as we’d have liked.”
Activists and health officials warn against the risk of complacency in an era when HIV is increasingly viewed in the developed world as a manageable chronic disease because of the potential for people to live an almost normal lifespan on the latest antiretroviral drugs.
They say HIV remains one of the gravest health threats across much of the developing world, especially Africa, which has almost 70 per cent of cases.
Further rapid gains may be hard to achieve as the virus becomes increasingly concentrated among hard-to-reach groups, such as sex workers and drug users, as well as gay people and youths who may shun testing and treatment.
Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, which leads the global response to HIV, says a big push is needed to meet a target to end the epidemic by 2030.
“We have bent the trajectory of the epidemic. Now we have five years to break it for good or risk the epidemic rebounding out of control.”
Pharmaceutical companies, once pilloried for keeping HIV drugs out of reach of the poor, have increasingly lent support to the effort by licensing their medicines for generic manufacturers to make on a low-cost basis in the developing world.
AbbVie of the US on Monday became the fifth big pharma company to grant a licence for generic production to the UN-backed Medicines Patent Pool, following Bristol-Myers Squibb, Gilead Sciences, Roche and ViiV Healthcare, a joint-venture between GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer.
The agreement with AbbVie involves two antiretrovirals formulated for children and helps address a shortage of treatments suitable for the 3.2m children with HIV in the world.
AbbVie’s lopinavir and ritonavir drugs will be available to generic producers in 102 countries where 99 per cent of children with HIV live.
“This is a crucial licence for paediatric programmes in resource-limited countries,” said Greg Perry, executive director of the Medicines Patent Pool.
The deal was welcomed by Aaron Motsoaledi, health minister of South Africa, who said: “Medicines are urgently needed to end the HIV paediatric crisis.”