HIV still a threat, despite declining rate of new infections

20 percent of new cases are infected with a drug-resistant strain of the virus.

maki 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
maki 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
A total of 336 new cases of HIV/AIDS in Israel were reported in 2006, according to the Health Ministry statistics released on Wednesday before World AIDS Day, which falls on Saturday. They bring the number of Israelis diagnosed as HIV carriers or AIDS patients since 1981 to 4,999. During that period, 1,059 of them died or left Israel, and 3,940 are currently living here as carriers of the virus or with full-blown AIDS. Israel's rate of 47 new cases per million residents is among the lowest in the Western world, but there are still gaps in prevalence between the general population and specific sub-groups, such as homosexuals, drug users and immigrants from Ethiopia. Dr. Dan Turner, director of the AIDS center at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, said that "there is no room for the public's current apathy about HIV today, as 20 percent of new carriers are infected by a strain of the virus that is resistant to the drug cocktail. The eroded efficacy of the medications should teach us that the disease was and remains irreversible." According to regulations instituted in 2006, all HIV carriers and AIDS patients must undergo tests to determine resistance before they begin their drug treatment. "There is a dangerous trend of people who say 'I'll get infected with HIV and take the drug cocktail like a young woman takes contraception pills, and I'll live with AIDS.' This is especially true among homosexuals," Turner added. Turner said the number of new carriers diagnosed at Sourasky has grown by 50% in the last three years. This year, 664 new patients are being treated there compared to 350 in 2004. Free HIV testing is available in community health fund clinics and in seven hospitals around the country. The number of medications available in the basket of health services for turning AIDS into a chronic disease instead of a more immediately fatal one is among the largest in the world. The ministry, which finances HIV tests, will hold a publicity campaign in December to increase awareness about AIDS, especially among younger people. A public service message called "Condom - A Film With a Happy Ending" will be shown in cinemas during December. Thousands of free condoms will be distributed by the Durex company on Saturday night outside cinemas in Tel Aviv, Haifa, the Haifa suburbs and Beersheba, at universities and colleges and in malls around the country. HOT and Yes cable and satellite TV stations will hold special broadcasts on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. to mark World AIDS Day. The ministry said that in recent years, there has been an increase in the proportion of homosexual men among HIV carriers and AIDS patients. As a result of this worrisome trend, an educational campaign is being carried out aimed at the gay community through its Web site and at its entertainment places. Throughout December, high school pupils in Karmiel will hand out hundreds of condoms donated by Neopharm. To reduce HIV infection via contaminated syringes, the ministry launched a needle-exchange program with the Anti-Drugs Authority in the Tel Aviv central bus station last year. As some immigrants from Ethiopia come with HIV and AIDS, informational workshops are held in immigrant absorption centers and among youths, soldiers and immigrants in permanent housing to try to minimize infection of healthy people by carriers and AIDS patients. The Physicians for Human Rights-Israel organization said that it has identified 80 non-citizens with AIDS or HIV who are not getting the medical treatment they need. "This is a death sentence for them," said Prof. Zvi Bentwich, an AIDS expert and member of the voluntary organization. "These people without status in Israel should be allowed to remain here at least until AIDS treatment in their home country improves." Many of the 80, said the organization, are at daily risk of being imprisoned and returned to their countries, where there is no treatment for AIDS. Meanwhile, new World Health Organization and UNAIDS data show the prevalence of HIV in many countries around the world has levelled off and that the number of new infections has fallen, in part as a result of the impact of HIV programs. However, in 2007, 33.2 million people were estimated to be living with HIV, 2.5 million became newly infected and 2.1 million died of AIDS. There were an estimated 1.7 million new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa in 2007 - a significant reduction since 2001. However, the region remains most severely affected. An estimated 22.5 million people living with HIV, or 68% of the global total, are in sub-Saharan Africa. Eight countries in this region now account for almost one-third of all new HIV infections and AIDS deaths globally. Global HIV incidence is now estimated to have peaked in the late 1990s at over three million new infections per year. The estimate for 2007, 2.5 million new infections, translates into an average of over 6,800 each day. This reflects natural trends in the epidemic, as well as the result of HIV prevention efforts. The number of people dying from AIDS-related illnesses has declined in the last two years, due in part to the life-prolonging effects of antiretroviral therapy. "These improved data present us with a clearer picture of the AIDS epidemic, one that reveals both challenges and opportunities," said Dr. Peter Piot, the executive director of UNAIDS. "Unquestionably, we are beginning to see a return on investment; new HIV infections and mortality are declining and the prevalence of HIV [is] leveling. But with more than 6,800 new infections and over 5,700 deaths each day due to AIDS, we must expand our efforts in order to significantly reduce the impact of AIDS worldwide."