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Report Cites Positive Signs Amid Rising HIV/AIDS Statistics

By Linda Bloom*

Programs to prevent HIV/AIDS get better results when they target the people most at risk and make adaptations as the course of the epidemic changes.

That's one of the conclusions from the 2006 AIDS Epidemic Update, published by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organization.

Although the infection rate continues to grow - even in some countries where it had previously declined or remained stable - the report noted some positive signs, such as the decline in HIV prevalence among young people in a number of African countries.

Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, and the United Methodist Church's top legislative body, the General Conference, encourages church members to observe it through prayer and action.

The United Methodist Social Principles states that individuals living with HIV/AIDS must be "treated with dignity and respect" and have rights to employment, medical care, public education and full participation in the church. "We urge the church to be actively involved in the prevention of the spread of AIDS by providing educational opportunities to the congregation and the community." In fact, 65 percent of the 4.3 million new infections in 2006 occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, but significant increases also were seen in the infection rates in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Some 2.9 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2006.

The update reports that 1.7 million people are living with HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where the infection rate has seen a 20-fold increase in less than a decade. Most of the 15- to 24-year-olds living with the disease in the region are in the Russian Federation and the Ukraine. They make up nearly one-third of the new infections. Dirty needles are the prime mode of HIV transmission.

Calling these statistics "numbers without tears," the Rev. Donald Messer, executive director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, said the challenge is to have United Methodists and others "feel" the facts.

"When I think of the global AIDS pandemic, I don't respond to abstract figures but to human faces," Messer, the former president of Iliff School of Theology in Denver, told United Methodist News Service.

"I remember the sobbing mothers and wives that embraced me in sorrow at an AIDS hospital a few weeks ago in India. Likewise, I recall those prisoners with AIDS that knelt in front of me and begged for us to pray together. And I see those little children who are dying of AIDS because the world refuses to provide them medicine."

Focusing on prevention

The UNAIDS/WHO report suggests that increased HIV prevention programs aimed at reaching those most at risk are having an effect. As young people have delayed becoming sexually active, taken few sexual partners and increased the use of condoms, declines in HIV infection between 2000 and 2005 have been seen in Botswana, Burundi, Cote d'Ivoire, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

Prevention programs specifically targeting sex workers and IV drug users seem to have had an effect in some regions of China. Infection among drug injectors in Portugal dropped by almost a third between 2001 and 2005 after special prevention programs were started.

But in several regions, including Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, people at highest risk often aren't reached by HIV prevention and treatment programs because not enough is known about their situations, according to the AIDS Epidemic Update. Knowledge about safe sex and HIV also remains low in many countries.

Improving prevention strategies in 125 low- and middle-income countries "would avert an estimated 28 million new infections between 2005 and 2015," the report said. That would save $24 billion in associated treatment costs.

"Once United Methodists begin to feel the facts of the global AIDS pandemic, I am confident that every pastor will preach an Advent sermon related to World AIDS Day and every layperson will speak out against stigma and discrimination," Messer said.

At that point, he added, the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund "will easily surpass its $8 million goal." The fund is aiming to raise $1 per United Methodist in the United States, or about $8 million. The United Methodist Global AIDS Fund is an Advance Special of the United Methodist Church, #982345. Write that number on the memo line of a check and drop it in the offering plate of a local church. Credit-card donations may be made by calling (800) 554-8583.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York. News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.