08/05/2013 06:21 EDT | Updated 10/05/2013 05:12 EDT

AIDS deaths falling sharply in eastern, southern Africa

AIDS deaths and HIV infections in eastern and southern Africa are falling dramatically, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS says.

But Canadian AIDS activists say there's still lots of work to be done.

Michel Sidibé, executive director of the UN program, popularly known as UNAIDS, said hard work is "breaking the trajectory of the epidemic" in the region that was previously the "epicentre of the HIV crisis."

"We're seeing drops in the new infections in countries like Ethiopia. There was a reduction of new infection last year by more than 90 per cent. Malawi, where we were not having any hope, there's a reduction by 73 per cent. That's a success story."

At a special session at the African Union's international conference on maternal, newborn and child health in last week in Johannesburg, South Africa, UNAIDS reported that between 2009 and 2012, new HIV infections declined:

- 50 per cent in seven countries.

- 30-49 per cent decline in seven countries.

- Less than 30 per cent decline in six countries.

Overall, in eastern and southern Africa, the annual number of new infections fell 30 per cent from 1.7 million in 2001 to 1.2 million 2011, and among children, the rate of new infection fell 50 per cent.

There was also a 38 per cent decrease in AIDS-related deaths in the region between 2005 and 2011.

UNAIDS credited better access to antiretroviral medication — which was received by less than a million people in 2005, but by more than 6 million in 2012.

"Canada's strong focus on maternal health has helped us to advance the global plan in 22 countries, which helped us to say today that we will probably reach a new generation free of HIV by 2015," Sidibe said.

Treating people with the drugs sooner not only saves lives, but prevents new infections, added Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, which pioneered the strategy of making antiretroviral medication more accessible to HIV-positive people.

"It actually puts people back on their feet and back to work," he said. "It puts the disease back in permanent remission so that people can have a normal longevity."

Stephen Lewis, the Canadian former UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS, said although he is encouraged that more Africans are getting access to treatment, the progress has taken a long time.

"The huge numbers of people lost along the way, literally millions, because we rolled all of this out too slowly, even now — that's the heartbreaking dimension of it," he said. "And it's rarely referred to."

He said the focus should not be on the achievements that have already been made, but on the work yet to be done.

For example, he said there is a $7 billion shortfall in the funds needed for the millions of HIV-positive people in Africa who are still awaiting treatment.

Montaner said he thinks what Sidibe is doing is trying to show through the report is that "this is a fight that we can win."

"This is only the beginning of what we can achieve if we deliver on the promise of universal access of antiretroviral therapy, not just for North America, but for the rest of the world," he said. "It's now time to double our efforts."