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HIV epidemic roughly 25% smaller than originally estimated

Wednesday, 6 August, 2014

Last week The Lancet published a study which used a new systematic analysis method for the global, regional and national incidence and mortality for HIV, TB and Malaria.  This study revealed that previous HIV mortality estimates have been hugely overestimated, and that the HIV epidemic is actually around 25 percent smaller than previously estimated, particularly across the concentrated epidemics of Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Previous research of key vulnerable populations has been largely based on estimates of how many people within these groups are at risk of HIV. This is difficult to gauge as it involves many behavioural factors that are difficult to determine, such as an individuals sexual activity. The Lancet study utilises death records and causes of mortality to measure these figures. This study found arguably more accurate estimations of the HIV epidemic, for example the total number of people living with HIV (PLHIV) was 18.7% smaller than previous UNAIDS estimates. Factors such as increased access to antiretroviral treatment are acknowledged as vital to this decrease in PLHIV.

Whilst these encouraging findings provide evidence of the successful global HIV and AIDS efforts, it must be remembered that relying on death records and causes of mortality is challenging, especially when analysing African countries, where death records are increasingly difficult to obtain and often AIDS-related deaths are masked by other diseases to reduce stigma. Not only are these methods of analysis challenging, the impact of these figures raises concern. Dr Theo Vos, the main researcher behind the study stated in a recent interview for The Guardian “…although we're making a lot of success, that doesn't mean you can draw your interest away. If we do, these diseases will come back with a vengeance”.  It is therefore crucial that funding and support for combating the HIV epidemic does not decrease and that these new figures should help inform HIV and AIDS organisations and policymakers of the key factors that are helping to reduce the global HIV epidemic.