With the HIV/AIDS epidemic showing signs of reversal globally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and countries are now working towards zero new HIV infections, zero deaths from AIDS-related illnesses and zero discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS.

To achieve this goal, the WHO has emphasised the need for people to learn about their HIV status, and for greater effort to reach and support young people and men who have sex with men, sex workers, people who inject drugs, migrants and others who are most vulnerable to the disease. December 1 is observed as World AIDS Day annually the world over.

The WHO launched the updated treatment guidelines for adults, children and pregnant women in 2010. Consolidated guidelines that are being developed will have both normative and operational guidance on scaling up testing and treatment services. These will also look at models of care beyond the health sector to enhance community and health sector linkages. These guidelines will be launched in 2013.The HIV epidemic is now clearly reversing. In 2011, 2.2 million people across the world were infected with HIV and 1.7 million died, half a million fewer new infections than 10 years ago, and 6,00,000 fewer deaths than 2005. In all 11 countries of the WHO’s South-East Asia Region, there was a 35 per cent reduction in new infections, from 3,20,000 in 2001 to 2,08,500 in 2011, according to the WHO.

“The overall decline in the region is cause for increased optimism; however, complacency now could become our greatest enemy,” said Dr. Samlee Plianbangchang, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia. “Those most vulnerable to HIV are also among the least empowered, and HIV prevention care and treatment services for these people need to be made available and accessible,” he added.

One of the key factors behind the decline in HIV infections, according to the WHO, is increased access to antiretroviral therapy (ART) and expansion of HIV prevention programmes.

In the region, 46 per cent of adults in need of treatment were enrolled in care and treatment by the end of 2011 — up from 12 per cent in 2005. The coverage for HIV treatment in children was 39 per cent in 2011, up from 9 per cent in 2005. Early treatment reduces morbidity and mortality due to HIV, and recent studies have also confirmed the prevention benefits of early treatment in uninfected regular sexual partners of HIV-infected individuals.

While there is much to rejoice, challenges remain. Nearly half of those in need of treatment are not getting it. Vulnerable groups such as sex workers, people who inject drugs, and homosexual men continue to face stigma and discrimination in accessing prevention, care and treatment services. Linkages between programmes were critical to the expansion of the reach of the services, the WHO said.

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