The AIDS pandemic rampaging around the globe will not be stopped without radical social change to improve the lot of women and girls, who now look likely to die in greater numbers than men, UN agencies said on Tuesday.
Infections among women are soaring, from sub-Saharan Africa to Asia to Russia. What began as a series of epidemics among men -- in some regions gay and bisexual men, in others men who frequented sex workers or male drug users -- has spread to their female partners who are biologically more easily infected.
In many countries, women's subordinate status, and their lack of education and economic power have made it impossible for them to negotiate sex with men or to ask for the use of condoms. Yesterday the UN agency set up to combat the pandemic, UNAIDS, called for all that to change in the interests of checking the spread of a disease which killed 3.1 million adults and children last year.
"We will not be able to stop this epidemic unless we put women at the heart of the response to AIDS," said UNAIDS' executive director, Peter Piot.
At the launch of the UNAIDS annual report on the pandemic yesterday, actress Emma Thompson, who is a founder member of the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS launched this year, put it in starker fashion.
"There are some countries where women are an endangered species -- they will disappear from the face of the earth," she said.
"I think this is the greatest catastrophe that the human race has ever faced," she said.
Across the globe, 39.4 million people, including 2.2 million children, are carrying the HIV virus and will die without treatment to contain it -- up from about 36.2 million two years ago. Only one in 10 in developing countries can get the drugs they need.
Last year, 4.9 million people were newly infected and 3.1 million died. In some parts, such as sub-Saharan Africa, the numbers living with HIV appear to have stabilized, but only because as many are now dying as are acquiring infection.
In the UK, HIV continues to spread. UNAIDS says it "has become the fastest-growing serious health condition." A report today from the UK's Health Protection Agency will confirm the trend. Last year there were 7,000 new diagnoses, taking the total numbers living with infection well above 50,000.
The numbers of women affected globally are rising faster than those of men, now making up nearly half of the total. In sub-Saharan Africa, where the pandemic is furthest advanced, the transition is complete -- 57 percent of those with HIV are women. In Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, 77 percent of all young people infected virus are women.
Across nine countries in that region, the infection rate in the whole population is one in four.
In other parts of the world, there have been large hikes in the proportion of women affected. In east Asia, there has been a 56 percent increase in the number of HIV positive women in the past few years.