Note No. 170
29 November 2001


Report Warns Epidemic Continues in Upswing, Even in High-Income Countries

MOSCOW, 28 November -- A new report released today, "AIDS Epidemic Update 2001", says the number of HIV infections in Eastern Europe is rising faster than anywhere else in the world. Reported figures are largely underestimated but even so, the latest figures reveal there were more than 75,000 reported new infections in Russia by early November, a 15-fold increase in just three years.

"HIV is spreading rapidly throughout the entire Eastern European region - a quarter of a million new cases only this year," said Dr Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). "HIV/AIDS is unequivocally the most devastating disease we have ever faced, and it will get worse before it gets better."

According to the report, published by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO), there exists a particular opportunity for action in countries where either the rate of HIV is low or which have large populations.

"Low reported national prevalence rates can be misleading," said Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of WHO, "because they may be exceedingly high in certain sub-populations. In many countries, we have to take these figures as warning signs of an impending epidemic, not as excuses for complacency." In countries with high populations, a few percentage points can translate into millions of individuals infected.

Meantime, the epidemic continues its rapid spread throughout Africa, with 3.4 million new infections and 2.3 million deaths in 2001. In Swaziland, Botswana and some areas of South Africa, more than 30% of pregnant women are HIV-positive. In West Africa, several countries with previously low infection numbers - including Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation - have now passed the 5% infection mark.

A worrying trend in high-income countries is the increase in unsafe sex, which itself has triggered a rise in sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. There is now evidence that in high-income countries, HIV is moving into poorer communities and that young adults belonging to ethnic minorities face considerably greater risks of infection than they did five years ago.

"Despite advances in treatment and care which have become widely available in wealthy countries, prevention is lagging behind," said Dr Peter Piot. "While unsafe sex and injecting drug use continue to fuel this broadening epidemic, it is at the same time shifting to more disadvantaged communities. It is imperative that these communities get the resources and support needed to take up the prevention message."

In Asia, figures also continue to climb and for the first time, despite effective prevention efforts in some smaller countries, the number of newly infected people reached one million. There is a serious threat of major, generalized epidemics. In some Middle Eastern countries as yet virtually untouched by HIV, infection is beginning to spread rapidly among high-risk groups.

As the epidemic spreads, so does its impact on the development of societies and the wellbeing of economies. In sub-Saharan Africa, the hardest hit countries could lose more than 20% of their GDP by 2020 because of AIDS. Also severely affected are the education systems, civil administrations, health services and farms of many countries. Today, life expectancy in the region is dropping - were it not for AIDS, life expectancy would be at least 62 years; instead it is 47 years.

To help break the speed at which the epidemic is spreading, the report calls on countries to rapidly put in place effective prevention programmes, particularly to slow HIV among young people. At the same time, the need for expanding access to treatment and care remains critical to the success of any efforts to fight AIDS.

Twenty years into the epidemic, millions of young people still know little, if anything, about the epidemic. In some countries, many have never even heard of AIDS and those who have hold serious misconceptions about how HIV is transmitted. Any successful AIDS response will require providing young people with the information and life skills they need in order to prevent infection.

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For further information, journalists can contact:

Mr Gregory Hartl, WHO Spokesperson, WHO, Geneva. Telephone (+41 22) 791 4458; Fax (+41 22) 791 4858; Email: All WHO Press Releases, Fact Sheets and Features as well as other information on this subject can be obtained on Internet on the WHO home page


Anne Winter, UNAIDS, Moscow, (+41 79) 213 4312 (mobile), Anna Panshina, UNAIDS, Moscow (+7 095) 165 9968, (+7 902) 652 6746 (mobile), Dominique de Santis, UNAIDS, Geneva, (+41 22) 791 4509 or Andrew Shih, UNAIDS, New York, (+ 1 212) 584 5012. You may also visit the UNAIDS Home Page on the Internet for more information about the programme (