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World AIDS Day: Africa sees headway in battling disease

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Anti-retroviral drugs help to improve the quality of lives of people living with , making them live longer and healthier

South Africa has the biggest HIV treatment program in the world, with 3.7 million people accessing life-saving anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs), Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said Thursday.

“As we celebrate the dramatic reduction of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, as we welcome the marked increase in average life expectancy, we must be alarmed that the rate of new HIV infection remains stubbornly high,” Ramaphosa said in a World Aids Day address at a stadium east of Johannesburg.

He said that each week brings an estimated 2,000 new HIV infections in adolescent girls and young women aged 15-24.

“We know that last year, an estimated 266,000 South Africans became infected with HIV. That is not a mere statistic. That is a tragedy unfolding.” He said.

He urged South Africans to act immediately to reduce new HIV infections, or the progress they have made in the struggle against the disease will be eroded.

There are currently 7 million people living with the HIV virus in South Africa, according to .

Michel Sidibé, United Nations undersecretary-general and executive director of UNAIDS, warns that young girls in sub-Saharan Africa are at a high risk of contracting the virus.

“We know that for girls in sub-Saharan Africa, the transition to adulthood is a particularly dangerous time. Young women are facing a triple threat: a high risk of HIV infection, low rates of HIV testing, and poor adherence to HIV treatment,” he said Thursday.

However, despite high infections on the continent, African governments are determined to combat the epidemic through education and treatment.

Most countries on the continent have now adopted the recently introduced universal testing and treatment program, which requires that all those who test positive for HIV virus that causes AIDS be given ARV drugs.

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Previously, the drugs were only given to those whose disease had advanced or whose CD4 counts (an immune system health indicator) was less than 500.

South African Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi says his country adopted the program after research showed that people on treatment had reduced chances of passing the disease to others due to their low viral loads.

On Wednesday, South Africa launched a ground-breaking clinical trial of an experimental vaccine against HIV.

Scientists hope this vaccine might eventually find a cure for the deadly virus, which has claimed over 30 million people worldwide since its discovery.

5,400 sexually active men and women aged 18-35 years have been enrolled in the new study, known as HVTN 702. According to scientists, the study is one of the largest clinical trials ever conducted on HIV.

– Sub-Saharan Africa

The World Health Organization (WHO) said about 12.5 million people infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are unaware of their status.

In a message marking World AIDs Day, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said the 12.5 million infected persons are among the total 26 million people living with HIV in the region, the most affected in the world.

He said the statistics show another 13.4 million HIV carriers do not have access to life-saving anti-retroviral drugs.

“Despite making considerable progress since 2000, with both new infections and deaths dropping by over 40 percent by 2015, Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be the region most affected in the world, with almost 26 million people living with the infection in 2015,” she said.

“Over 2 million are under the age of 15, which is 90 percent of the global burden of HIV/AIDS among . The region experienced nearly three-quarters more deaths due to HIV than any other; about 800,000 people died in 2015 alone.”

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Sub-Saharan Africa has the most serious HIV and AIDS epidemic in the world. According to UNAIDS, there are approximately 36.7 million people living with the virus worldwide, with 18.2 million accessing ARV treatment.

Swaziland, a tiny, landlocked kingdom in southern Africa with an HIV prevalence rate of 26 percent, has an ambitious plan to eradicate the disease by 2022.

With a population of 1.25 million people, Swaziland has 220,000 people living with the virus.

The country’s recently launched Swaziland HIV Investment Case aims to achieve an AIDS-free generation. The project is projected to cost the impoverished kingdom $1.9 million over the period 2014-2030 and $857 million in 2014-2022.

Commentators say Swaziland’s move is important in a country that had been seen as being on the brink of a total AIDS wipeout.

With 3.5 million people living with the virus, Nigeria in Western Africa says it is 10 percent away from achieving the 2020 goal of eliminating new HIV/AIDS cases.

The continent’s most populous country has 250,000 new infections annually and 180,000 AIDS-related deaths. Only 24 percent of the adult victims are on ARV drugs, one of the lowest on the continent.

The Health Ministry in Uganda in Eastern Africa has also adopted the universal test and treat model. “All HIV-infected individuals will now be eligible for antiretroviral treatment regardless of disease stage or CD4 cell count,” State Minister for Health Sarah Opendi said this week.

1.5 million Ugandans were living with the virus in 2015, with the highest prevalence in the 15-49 age group.

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in Eastern Africa, which has at least 1.6 million people infected with the virus, says it has committed more funds to AIDS programs to help provide testing and medication for those who test positive.

Marking World AIDS Day at Nyayo Stadium in Nairobi, Kenyan first lady Margaret Kenyatta warned that even though the country has seen incredible progress in reducing new HIV infections through concerted multi-institutional and multi-faceted efforts, Kenya has recently seen an rising number of new infections among teenagers and young adults aged 15-24, which she called worrisome.

“We have to recognize that these trends are untenable and threaten to erode all the gains we have made, nationally, in the struggle against this pernicious disease,” she added.

Marking World Aids Day, Senegalese music icon and Youth Envoy Baaba Maal called on West African youths to embark on voluntary HIV testing to reduce the stigma of the virus.

He also used the opportunity to release a new HIV awareness song in front of a large crowd from various West African countries at an event organized by the WHO.

Senegal has a very low HIV prevalence rate, at below 1 percent. But experts say cross-border movements and the acceptance of condom use in the local communities needs to more attention.

*Anadolu Agency correspondents Mongi Zulu in Swaziland, Rafiu Ajakaye in Nigeria, Halima Athumani in Uganda, Magdalene Mukami in Kenya, Olarewaju Kola in Nigeria, and Alpha Kamara in Senegal contributed to this story.

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