New HIV infections and deaths from AIDS are decreasing, the United Nations said on Wednesday, making it possible to control the epidemic by 2030 and eventually end it "in every region, every country."
"More than ever before, there is hope that ending AIDS is possible. However, a business-as-usual approach or simply sustaining the AIDS response at its current pace cannot end the epidemic," the U.N. program UNAIDS said in a global report issued ahead of an AIDS conference in Melbourne, Australia, next week.
Despite the promising signs of progress, the U.N. also said that HIV was still at epidemic levels across much of the world, and that without access to treatments in poorer countries, the virus was likely to continue to spread.
The U.N.’s report said the number of people infected with HIV was stabilizing at around 35 million worldwide. The epidemic has killed some 39 million of the 78 million people it has affected since it began in the 1980s.
"The AIDS epidemic can be ended in every region, every country, in every location, in every population and every community," Michel Sidibe, the director of UNAIDS, said in the report. "There are multiple reasons why there is hope and conviction about this goal."
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, can be transmitted via blood, breast milk or semen, but can be kept in check with cocktails of drugs known as antiretroviral therapy.
Recently, many medical experts have also been pushing for increased use of antiretrovirals as a preventive measure in high-risk communities. A once-a-day pill called Truvada can prevent the spread of HIV, and has gained popularity in the LGBT community in the U.S. But Truvada and other antiretrovirals are prohibitively expensive for those without insurance in the U.S. and for many in developing countries, where AIDS has proved most deadly.
UNAIDS said that at the end of 2013, some 12.9 million HIV-positive people had access to antiretroviral therapy — a dramatic improvement on the 10 million who were on treatment just one year earlier and the 5 million who were getting AIDS drugs in 2010.
Since 2001, new HIV infections have fallen by 38 percent, it said. AIDS deaths have fallen 35 percent since a peak in 2005.
"The world has witnessed extraordinary changes in the AIDS landscape. There have been more achievements in the past five years than in the preceding 23 years," the report said.
The U.N. report said ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030 would mean the spread of HIV was being controlled or contained, and that the impact of the virus in societies and in people's lives had been reduced by significant declines in ill health, stigma, deaths and the number of AIDS orphans.
"It means increased life expectancy, unconditional acceptance of people's diversity and rights, and increased productivity and reduced costs as the impact diminishes."
According to UNAIDS, $19.1 billion was available from all sources for the AIDS response in 2013, and the estimated annual need by 2015 is currently between $22 billion and $24 billion.
Sidibe said the international community should seize the opportunity to turn the epidemic around.
"We have a fragile five-year window to build on the rapid results that been made," he said. "If we accelerate all HIV scale-up by 2020, we will be on track to end the epidemic by 2030. If not, we risk significantly increasing the time it would take — adding a decade, if not more."
He said controlling the epidemic by 2030 would avert 18 million new HIV infections and 11.2 million AIDS deaths between 2013 and 2030.
In 2011, U.N. member states agreed to a target of getting HIV treatment to 15 million people by 2015. As countries scaled up treatment coverage, and evidence showed how treating HIV early also reduces its spread, the World Health Organization set new guidelines last year, expanding the number of people needing treatment by more than 10 million.
There are still big challenges ahead for containing the virus. First and foremost, access to drugs and other therapies must be made more readily available in low-income countries, according to Jennifer Cohn, medical director of the access campaign for the charity Doctors Without Borders.
"Providing lifesaving HIV treatment to nearly 12 million people in the developing world is a significant achievement, but more than half of people in need still do not have access," she said. "We know that early treatment helps prevent transmission of HIV and keeps people healthy; we need to respond to HIV in all contexts and make treatment accessible to everyone in need as soon as possible."
Al Jazeera and wire services