World AIDS Day 2010: Top signs of progress

In 2009, more than 33 million people worldwide were living with HIV. That's up from 26.2 million in 1999. Despite that staggering statistic, UNAIDS and other AIDS organizations are making progress in their efforts to control and eventually eradicate HIV/AIDS. World AIDS Day is a chance to take stock of how well these organizations are doing and where the world stands today.

A worldwide decline in infection rates

People light candles for AIDS victims during an AIDS awareness event marking the World AIDS Day at Sergels Torg square in Stockholm, Sweden on Dec. 1. (Janerik Henriksson/Scanpix/Reuters)

According to the 2010 report from UNAIDS, the United Nations' HIV/AIDS program, the overall HIV infection rate has declined almost 20 percent in 10 years – from 3.1 million new cases in 1999 to 2.6 million in 2009. That decrease follows decades of explosive growth in the number of HIV infections.

According to the Monitor's Africa Bureau Chief Scott Baldauf, much of that decline can be attributed to funding from donor nations – such as the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which registered $6.8 billion in funding in 2010 – and private organizations. Much of that money goes toward education about prevention and prevention tools, such as teaching people about safe sex and making condoms more available.

A decline in South Africa's infection rates

South Africa has the world's largest number of people living with HIV – 5.6 million, according to AVERT, a UK-based international AIDS organization. But it is also one of the 56 countries that have slowed or stabilized their HIV infection rates. There was a 25 percent decline in the infection rate between 2001 and 2009, according to the UN. The HIV infection rate among 18-year-olds declined from 1.8 percent in 2005 to 0.8 in 2008, and among women ages 15 to 24, it dropped from 5.5 percent to 2.2 percent between 2003 and 2008.

Fewer people dying from AIDS-related illnesses

The number of people dying from AIDS-related illnesses has also declined the past several years. In 2009, according to UNAIDS, approximately 1.8 million people died, compared with 2.1 million in 2004 – almost a 20 percent decline. Most experts attribute that success to better access to treatment. The number of people getting treatment has increased 7.5 times in the last five years – up to 5.2 million in 2009, compared with 700,000 in 2004.

UNAIDS also reports that the number of people living with HIV has increased slightly, as life expectancy improves because of access to antiretroviral treatments. The Monitor reports that the US alone has provided those treatments to 2.4 million people worldwide.

Safer sexual practices, more access to condoms

UNAIDS reports that the adoption of safer sexual practices is central to a decline of more than 25 percent in new HIV infection rates among young people in countries with a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Of safe sexual practices, one of the most notable developments is the increase in condom use and availability.

Eleven countries reported more than 75 percent condom use in the most recent sexual encounter that had a high risk of infection, such as sex with a sex worker.

Fewer babies born with HIV

More countries are effectively preventing HIV from being transmitted from mother to child. UNAIDS estimates that 370,000 children were newly-infected in 2009, which is a large number, but is also a 24 percent decline from several years ago.

Conversely, the number of HIV-positive pregnant women who received treatment to prevent transmission of HIV to their children increased drastically – from 35 percent in 2007 to 53 percent in 2009. The number of countries with large numbers of women not receiving treatment to prevent transmission has shrunk to 14.