Figures released this week show a slight decline in the number of people living with HIV worldwide. While Church groups have welcomed the news they warn that there is still much to be done. "We welcome any indication that fewer people are living with HIV, whether it is through more accurate statistics or because a strong response in some areas is making a positive impact," said Linda Hartke, coordinator of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance. "But in no way can we relax our efforts. HIV remains a devastating disease not just for individuals, but for families, communities and nations," she said. New figures released yesterday by UNAIDS and the World Health Organization have revised the estimated number of people living with HIV to 33.2 million. Approximately 2.5 million adults and children were newly infected with HIV and about 2.1 million lost their lives due to AIDS related illnesses in 2007. The reduced figures are primarily due to improved data gathering methodology and better information from many countries, particularly in India. There are, however, some indications that better access to treatment and more intensive efforts at prevention have stabilized the spread of the disease in some countries. Even with the revised figures, UNAIDS confirms that AIDS has led to the deaths of 24-25 million people since AIDS was identified in 1981. Msgr Robert J Vitillo, Special Advisor on HIV and AIDS, Caritas Internationalis points out that the impact of AIDS far exceeds the statistics. "The direct work of our Caritas member organizations and other Catholic organizations in care, counseling, and support have always indicated that the impact of AIDS is far greater than the official figures have ever shown," he said. "The response to AIDS is not just about treating a disease, but treating all the factors in our society which continue to fuel the spread of the disease and inhibit our response, such as stigma and discrimination, violence and injustice against women, poverty, isolation, abuse. We see this in the faces all around us, and these numbers cannot be quantified." "Numbers are important as one factor that give an indication of the extent of the problem and the scale of the response needed" said Rev Christo Greyling, chair of the African Network of Religious Leaders Living With or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS (ANERELA+) and Africa Regional HIV/AIDS/Church Relations Advisor for World Vision. "But they never tell the whole story. We have to continue to do more to really address the spread of HIV, not just the accuracy of our numbers. Indeed, the long-term difficulty in getting accurate data indicates how far we have to go to address all the factors which leave people isolated, untested, uncounted and untreated. Lower prevalence numbers for people living with HIV does not reduce the stigma which prevents people from accessing services and affects the lives of children and adults affected with HIV." UNAIDS estimates that its previous figures on Global Resource Needs may need to be decreased only by five percent as the calculations largely took account of the new data. Anne-Marie Helland, Special Advisor on Social and Political Rights for Norwegian Church Aid, member of The Global Fund board and the HIV and AIDS strategy group of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, notes that governments and other donors and organizations active in the response have never come close to meeting previous estimated needs. "Resources have never been enough to identify all people affected, much less to provide testing, counselling, treatment and other support services," she says. "A drop in numbers doesn't change the gap between what is being done and what needs to be done." Rev Dr Hielke Wolters, director of Justice, Diakonia and Responsibility for Creation for the World Council of Churches said he was encouraged that more accurate figures "will help the world to plan, mobilize resources and implement actions more effectively to overcome HIV". However he notes that, among other indications, the estimate that the majority of the 33 million people living with HIV do not even know they are HIV positive, and the rate of 6800 new HIV infections every day particularly in low and middle income countries and among women and youth show that urgent and intensive actions are still needed. "These reductions in estimates cannot lower our commitment and our focus to overcome this preventable and treatable disease." The UN AIDS Epidemic Update 2007 can be accessed at www.unaids.org Source: Caritas
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