World AIDS Epidemic Growing
At 'Lightning Speed' -
40 Million Infected
By Clara Ferreira-Marques

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The AIDS epidemic gripping millions worldwide spread at lightning speed in 2001, with countries of the former Soviet bloc now facing the fastest growing infection rate, a U.N. report said Wednesday.
An estimated one million people in the former Soviet Union and ex-communist Eastern Europe now carry HIV, the virus which causes AIDS, the annual report said.
"The number of HIV infections is rising faster in this region than anywhere else in the world," said Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, the U.N. AIDS umbrella group.
"And the epidemic is only in its early stages -- it will get worse before it gets better," he told a press conference.
Around the globe, AIDS has become the fourth biggest killer -- with heart disease the first -- the report said, adding that 40 million people now carry the virus.
"About one-third of those living with AIDS are aged 15- 24," the annual UNAIDS report said. "Most of them do not know they carry the virus. Many millions more know nothing or too little about HIV to protect themselves against it."
Despite the rising infection rates elsewhere, Africa continues to be the critical blackspot for the virus, with Africans accounting for almost three-quarters of all those infected with HIV or AIDS.
The HIV virus, which is carried in the blood and other body fluids, is passed on through sexual contact, drug- use involving sharing of needles and transfusions of contaminated blood.
In Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Central Asian states, the focus of this year's report, social and economic turmoil have stoked the fast-spreading epidemic, the report said.
"In the Ukraine one percent of the adult population are infected, the highest in the region," Piot said. "We never thought it could come to these levels in Europe."
Russia and many of the Central Asian republics have seen spiraling figures with increased use of intravenous drugs. Russia alone has 163,000 recorded cases of HIV/AIDS, though experts say the real figure could be up to five times higher.
"If these trends continue, this will not only be the cause of a lot of suffering, but it will have an economic impact," Piot said. "Russia already has a demographic problem."
Frederick Lyons, head of the U.N. Development Program in Moscow, said the wildfire spread of HIV/AIDS could weigh down Russia's economic successes.
"HIV could reverse the successful growth pattern Russia has established for itself over the last three years," Lyons said. "The one percent infection rates reached in the Ukraine could be reached very rapidly in Russia...The loss in terms of skill and know-how would become extremely serious."
In Western Europe, as in other high-income countries, AIDS is also on the rise, UNAIDS said, as the safe-sex message fades and therapies that prolong lives are mistaken for cures.
For Piot, dwindling investment in awareness campaigns is also to blame: "It is really the price we are now paying for decreased investment in prevention programs."
"In Europe it is not a matter of funding, certainly not in Western Europe. There is no excuse," he added.
Though campaigns have increased use of condoms, the survey says millions of young African women remain dangerously ignorant about HIV/AIDS. Figures from the U.N. children's charity UNICEF show more than 70 percent of adolescent girls in Somalia have never heard of AIDS.
Asian nations like Cambodia and Thailand have drastically lowered HIV rates with large-scale prevention campaigns but the region's heavily populated countries, including China, have had a different experience.
The country's health ministry said 600,000 Chinese were living with HIV/AIDS in 2000. UNAIDS said the total number could well have exceeded one million by late 2001.
In Latin America, heterosexual sex remains the main mode of HIV transmission, in contrast to industrialized nations where male homosexual contact remains the chief cause of infection.
Some 1.8 million people live with HIV/AIDS in Latin America and the Caribbean, the second-most affected region in the world.
AIDS is a syndrome, a combination of illnesses. HIV attacks the immune system and leaves the body vulnerable to life-threatening diseases, such as tuberculosis.

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