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The 2005 report by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) is a shocking reminder that the number of HIV/AIDS cases worldwide has hit an all-time high, exceeding 40 million people for the first time.

December 1 marked World AIDS Day, the theme of which this year was “AIDS: Do you think it has nothing to do with you?” The number of confirmed HIV and AIDS cases in Japan is not very large in absolute terms at around the 10,000 mark but it is rising steadily. Efforts must be intensified to prevent an explosion of cases.

The UNAIDS report, made public Dec. 1, estimates that the number of infected people will rise to 40.3 million by the end of 2005, an increase of 2.8 million since December 2003. This year 4.9 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and 3.1 million have died of AIDS.

The hardest-hit region is sub-Saharan Africa, where 25.8 million people — more than 60 percent of the world’s total — are HIV-positive. Of these, 13.5 million are female, accounting for 77 percent of the world’s cases involving women or girls. The report introduces surveys showing that in 24 sub-Saharan countries, two-thirds of females between the ages of 15 and 24 do not adequately understand how HIV is transmitted. This fact points to regional social and cultural conditions that leave women with few opportunities to receive an education and participate in society.

The number of HIV and AIDS cases is also on the rise in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and East Asia, including Japan and China. The report states that while the number is declining in West European countries, Uganda, Thailand, Cambodia, Brazil and elsewhere thanks to sustained efforts in those countries over many years, overall, “The AIDS epidemic continues to outstrip global efforts to contain it.”

So what should we do? Rather than carrying out prevention efforts and medical treatment separately, the report proposes expanding them simultaneously. The key to success, it stresses, is enabling all people to have equal access to prevention, medical treatment and care services. In low- to middle-income countries where HIV medicine is being distributed the lives of more than a million people have been improved. Still, the reality is that only one of six AIDS patients who require medical treatment are receiving it.

The Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations, which aim, among other things, to halve the number of people in poverty by 2015, emphasize preventing the spread of AIDS. To this end, developed countries must increase their financial and technical support of the U.N.’s efforts.

In Japan, people in their 20s and 30s account for 75 percent of new HIV infections. Almost all infections are caused by sexual intercourse; infection as the result of homosexual acts between men is especially high. Furthermore, 30 percent of patients already show symptoms of AIDS at the time of diagnosis. In October, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare decided to bolster examination and consultation services as well as arrangements for supplying medical treatment, and to promote educational activities in cooperation with nongovernmental organizations, including AIDS patient groups.

To mark World AIDS Day, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan last Thursday called for an “exceptional” response to the pandemic. Mr. Annan emphasized that international achievements in raising the profile of the AIDS threat mean that there are no excuses for failing to combat the disease. He noted that over the past decade “the world has made considerable progress in the fight against AIDS.” Nevertheless, despite more than two decades of research, no cure has been found for the disease, which is spread mainly through sexual intercourse and the sharing of HIV-tainted needles among drug addicts.

Prospects for a concerted global fight against AIDS are currently not so bright, as Europe and the United States differ on how best to halt the disease’s spread. As General Assembly President Jan Eliasson stated last week, “This vast human tragedy is all the more unacceptable because it could have been avoided.” In short, efforts to halt the scourge of AIDS should focus on prevention and the distribution of medicine to HIV-positive people to allow them to live longer, more productive lives. The most basic effort to combat the AIDS endemic should begin with an HIV test. The sooner people learn they are HIV-positive, the sooner they can seek medical treatment and alter their behavior to ensure they don’t spread the deadly virus to others.

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