By Wendell Roelf
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – Developing new antiretroviral (ARV) drugs and using technology for early diagnosis are among steps needed to sustain momentum in fighting HIV/AIDS and ending the disease as a public health threat by 2030, UNAIDS said in a report on Monday.
The U.N. AIDS agency said that by June this year around 21 million people were receiving life-prolonging ARV treatment, with rapid progress seen over the past five years when the numbers of people accessing medication nearly doubled.
“The pace of scale-up has been particularly remarkable in eastern and southern Africa, the region most affected by the epidemic,” said the “Right to Health” report, released in Khayelitsha township, some 30 km from Cape Town.
The number of people on treatment in the region surpassed all other regions combined in 2010 and presently accounts for 60 percent of all people on treatment. South Africa led the world with the number of people on treatment, at 4.2 million, followed by India, Mozambique and Kenya which have more than 1 million being treated.
UNAIDS said the worldwide expansion of ARV therapy was the main factor behind a 48 percent decline in deaths from AIDS-related illnesses, from a peak of 1.9 million in 2005 to 1 million in 2016.
New first-line ARVs, such as dolutegravir, which cause fewer side-effects and suppress viral loads more quickly, will help countries such as South Africa save money and treat more people, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said at the report launch.
“In the next six years South Africa is going to save 11 billion rand ($783 million) on HIV/AIDS treatment, meaning that we are going to treat more people with the same amount of resources,” he said.
In September, Reuters reported a new deal for combination pills using dolutegravir that caps prices at $75 per patient a year, with Africa expected to benefit first.
Last year a major milestone was reached, when for the first time more than half of all people living with HIV worldwide were accessing ARV therapy, said the report.
But the disease, which attacks the immune system making the body more susceptible to illness, remains a significant killer.
AIDS-related illnesses remain the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age (15-49 years) globally, and they are the second leading cause of death for young women aged 15-24 years in Africa, said the report.
“The problem that is coming is complacency… We still have 17 million people waiting for treatment and if we stop now, we will have a rebound in this epidemic,” UNAIDS executive director, Michel Sidibe, told the Khayelitsha community.
($1 = 14.0554 rand)
(Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by Mark Potter and Alison Williams)