Africa has entered a phase of upward-spiralling mortality from AIDS that underscores an urgent need to distribute life-prolonging, anti-HIV drugs, UN agencies said yesterday.
Two-thirds of AIDS fatalities and new HIV infections around the world this year will be in Africa, while in South Africa, "the worst still lies ahead," the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNAIDS warned.
South of the Sahara, around 26.6 million people -- in a range of 25 million to 28.2 million -- will be infected with HIV out of an estimated global tally of 40 million, they said in a joint update on the planet's biggest health crisis.
Around 2.3 million Africans will have died from AIDS during this year, and at least 3 million more Africans will have become infected.
That compares with an estimated death toll around the world of 3 million this year, and 5 million new infections.
Africa's figures represent a fall compared with previous estimates. The regional estimate at the end of last year was 29.4 million out of a worldwide total of 42 million.
But, WHO and UNAIDS said, the new statistics are based on better data and smarter analytical tools, and thus should be more accurate than before.
Nearly one in every 12 adult Africans has the AIDS virus.
That rate has remained relatively unchanged in recent years, yet no one should be fooled into thinking that AIDS' onward march in Africa has been checked, the two agencies warned.
"HIV prevalence might ... appear stable, but it hides the fact that the persistently high number of annual, new HIV infections is matching the equally high number of AIDS deaths," the report said.
"We are not, therefore, witnessing a decline in this region's epidemic. There is no cause for complacency. In the absence of effective interventions, the epidemic will continue to wreak havoc in these countries," the report said.
The 38-page report said that southern African region remains the epicenter of the global pandemic, where in seven countries, at least one in five adults has HIV or AIDS.
In Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland, the epidemic "has assumed devastating proportions ... HIV prevalence has reached extremely high proportions without signs of levelling off."
Swaziland last year matched Botswana's dismal adult infection rate of nearly 39 percent, compared with 4 percent just a decade earlier.
South Africa has the biggest number of HIV-infected people -- 5.3 million at the end of last year -- in the world.
In eastern and central Africa, Uganda is lauded for "a remarkable feat" in fighting AIDS, thanks to a tenacious grassroots awareness campaign. HIV prevalence in Kampala, the capital was 8 percent last year, compared to a rate of 30 percent among pregnant women a decade ago.
"To date, no other country has matched this achievement -- at least not nationally," the report says.
In western Africa, infection rates remain far lower than in other regions, with the big exception of Ivory Coast, where more than one in 10 pregnant women have HIV.
"Still paying off is Senegal's decision early in its epidemic to invest massively in HIV-prevention and awareness programs in the 1980s," when HIV infection rates were still very low.
Infection rates among Senegalese women "have stabilized" at around 1 percent for the past 13 years.