Snapshot of a pandemic

In 2003, about 4.8 million people became infected with HIV — more than in any previous year. The latest figures from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, made public on 6 July, show that some 37.8 million people worldwide are now living with the virus.

Figure 1

People living with HIV in 2003

Those in sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, south Asia and southeast Asia are dying in disproportionate numbers. Last year, the virus killed about 8% of infected people in these regions, compared with just 1% of those in Western Europe and North America. The high price and scarcity of AIDS drugs in developing countries are to blame.

Sub-Saharan Africa continues to suffer most, with 7 out of every 100 adults carrying the virus. And as Africa's population grows, so too does its problem with HIV. Yet the region has experienced only a 5% increase in the number of people living with HIV between 2001 and 2003, much less than in the rest of the developing world. This is partly because Africa's epidemic is reaching a natural plateau. In some countries, prevention strategies are also helping to keep the virus in check.

The most alarming surge in HIV infection is in Eastern Europe and central Asia, where there was a 46% rise in the number of people living with HIV between 2001 and 2003. Transmission there is mainly linked to prostitution and injecting drug use, both of which have flourished since the demise of the Soviet bloc. North Africa and the Middle East seem to have experienced a similar increase, but these figures may be unreliable, as surveillance is far from complete.


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Pilcher, H. Snapshot of a pandemic. Nature 430, 134–135 (2004).

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