1 December 2008Early HIV testing and treatment procedures have proved to be life-saving for newborn babies exposed to the virus, according to a United Nations report released today to coincide with World AIDS Day, as several top UN officials warn that much work remains to be done in combating the epidemic. The third Children and AIDS report, jointly prepared by four UN agencies, stated that diagnosing infants soon after birth and providing a course of medical action can significantly improve their chances of survival.“Without appropriate treatment, half of children with HIV will die from an HIV-related causes by their second birthday,” said UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Ann M. Veneman.“Survival rates are up to 75 per cent higher for HIV-positive newborns who are diagnosed and begin treatment within their first 12 weeks,” she added.But the report noted that last year fewer than 10 per cent of infants born to HIV-positive mothers were tested before they were two months old. “Today, no infant should have to die of AIDS,” said UN World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan.“We know how to prevent these tragic deaths, but now we need to focus on strengthening our health-care systems to ensure that all mothers and children receive treatment as early as possible,” Dr. Chan added.While stressing that AIDS is the most challenging and probably the most devastating infectious disease humanity has ever faced, Dr. Chan pointed to over 3 million people in low- and middle-income countries receiving life-prolonging antiretroviral therapy.“Such an achievement was unthinkable 20 years ago, when the world was just beginning to comprehend the significance of this disease and its catastrophic impact on individuals, families and societies,” she said in a message for World AIDS Day.The Children and AIDS report also noted that some of the countries hardest hit by HIV/AIDS, such as Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, Swaziland and Zambia, have introduced early infant HIV testing, and that some 30 low- and middle-income countries were using dry blood spot filter testing in 2007, up from 17 in 2005.Although several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Botswana and South Africa, were testing infants as young as six weeks old and treating many those found positive, the report stressed that far too few pregnant women know their HIV status. In 2007 only 18 per cent of pregnant women in low and middle-income countries were given an HIV test, and only 12 per cent of those who were tested positive went for further screening to determine the stage of HIV disease and type of treatment they require.“The prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV is not only effective, but also a human right,” said Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) Executive Director Peter Piot. “We are seeing good progress in many countries, especially in parts of Africa, but we need to significantly scale up HIV testing and treatment for pregnant women.”In a message marking World AIDS Day, Dr. Piot cautioned against complacency, noting that 20 years ago around 10 million people were living with HIV, but since then the epidemic has more than tripled in size, and is still growing. Latest UNAIDS figures estimate that in 2008 around 33 million people are living with HIV and there are 2.7 million new infections.“For every two people who start taking treatment today, another five become newly infected. So instead of getting shorter, the queues of people requiring antiretroviral therapy are getting longer,” stressed Dr. Piot.Some 45 per cent of all new infections worldwide occur among young people in the 15 to 24 year-old age group, according to the joint UNICEF, WHO, UNAIDS and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) report.“In a world with HIV and AIDS, young people need comprehensive information and education and access to sexual and reproductive health services to protect their right to health,” said UNFPA’s Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid,. “Preventing HIV infection in women is the first line of defence in preventing HIV in newborns.”Integrating HIV and reproductive health services is especially important in communities with high rates of HIV infection and where women are disproportionately affected, Ms. Obaid said in her message commemorating the international Day.“It makes sense that women and couples receive services for HIV testing, prevention, counselling and treatment at the same time as they receive information and services for maternal health and family planning,” she said.The Children and AIDS report ends by advocating for greater protection and care for the 15 million children worldwide who have lost either one or both of their parents due to AIDS.In a related development, UNAIDS selected two world soccer stars, Michael Ballack and Emmanuel Adebayor, to team up to launch a new public service announcement and poster campaign, featuring its slogan “On the pitch we compete – off the pitch – we are united against AIDS.”Dr. Piot also joined South African leaders, including Deputy President Baleka Mbete, at an AIDS Day commemoration in Durban today in one of his last official engagements as Executive Director of UNAIDS. “It is only through working together to tackle the challenges of this epidemic that we can make progress. Success depends on strong leadership united under a shared vision,” said Dr. Piot, echoing the sentiments of his colleagues in the other UN agencies.Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also announced today that Michel Sidibé of Mali will succeed Dr. Piot as the next UNAIDS Executive Director, effective 1 January next year.