UNAIDS outlines progress on HIV, but decries funding cuts

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) released its latest report on the status of the HIV epidemic and the global response ahead of the 10th International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Science (IAS 2019), taking place this week in Mexico City.

The report highlights the impact community programmes have had in successfully expanding access to HIV treatment, supporting adherence and preventing new infections. However, it also shows that this progress is slowing and has been uneven, and that global funding for the HIV/AIDS response has fallen for the first time.

"We urgently need increased political leadership to end AIDS," said UNAIDS interim executive director Gunilla Carlsson. "This starts with investing adequately and smartly and by looking at what’s making some countries so successful. Ending AIDS is possible if we focus on people, not diseases, create road maps for the people and locations being left behind, and take a human rights-based approach to reach people most affected by HIV."

Some countries are meeting or exceeding the UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets – 90% of people living with HIV knowing their status, 90% of those diagnosed being on antiretroviral therapy and 90% of those on treatment having viral suppression by 2020 – while others are falling behind.

Global progress stood at 79% knowing their status, 78% on treatment and 86% with viral suppression in 2018. However, when looking at the proportion of all people living with HIV worldwide – not just the proportion of the previous subset – the figures are less impressive, with just 62% being on treatment and 53% having viral suppression.

But these figures mask some notable disparities. Nearly 90% of people in Western and Central Europe and North America know their HIV status and are on treatment, but only about 80% of those have an undetectable viral load. In Asia and Latin America, the proportions tested and on treatment are lower, but almost everyone on treatment has achieved viral suppression. Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and Western and Central Africa are falling behind on all three measures.

Updated numbers

Globally, new infections and AIDS-related deaths continue to decline, but less steeply than before. At the same time, the number of people on HIV treatment continues to rise and appears on track to meet the 2020 target. According to UNAIDS global estimates, in 2018:

  • 37.9 million people worldwide were living with HIV;
  • 23.3 million (62%) had access to antiretroviral therapy;
  • 1.7 million newly acquired HIV;
  • 770,000 died from AIDS-related illnesses.

This represents a 16% drop in new infections since 2010, with most of the progress seen in Eastern and Southern Africa. But incidence has increased in some regions including Eastern Europe and Central Asia (up 29%), the Middle East and North Africa (up 10%) and Latin America (up 7%).

The report shows that members of key populations and their sexual partners now account for more than half (54%) of the 1.7 million people who newly acquired HIV in 2018. These groups include men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers, people who inject drugs and and prisoners. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia and in the Middle East and North Africa, these populations are thought to account for 95% of new infections. Here too, the distribution of who bears the brunt of the epidemic varies widely by region.

Despite the availability of antiretrovirals that can prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission, just 82% of pregnant women have access to them, resulting in 160,000 new infections among children – well short of the target of less than 40,000.

Regarding HIV prevention, the report says that only around 300,000 people worldwide – including 130,000 in the US – are using pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), although this is at best a rough estimate. Similarly, although people who inject drugs account for a high proportion of new HIV infections in some regions, many lack access to adequate harm reduction services.

Although it is harder to gauge progress in this area, the report notes that stigma, discrimination, criminalisation, harassment and violence remain problems for many people living with HIV.

In the face of this continued need, the gap between needs and available resources is widening, according to the report. Global funding for the HIV/AIDS response declined for the first time, by nearly US$1 billion, as international donors provided less and domestic investment did not keep up. Nonetheless, in 2018, more than half of all funding in low- and middle-income countries came from domestic sources. In 2018, US$19 billion was available for the response, falling US$7.2 billion short of the estimated US$26.2 billion needed by 2020.