LOS ANGELES/GENEVA, July 18 (Reuters) - Fewer people infected with HIV globally are dying as more of them get access to crucial antiretroviral drugs, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the United Nations AIDS program said on Wednesday.
The United Nations estimates that about 34 million people are living with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. It said in a report released ahead of the International AIDS Society's 2012 annual meeting set for next week in Washington, D.C., that the number of worldwide AIDS-related deaths fell to 1.7 million last year -- down from a peak of 2.3 million in 2005 and from some 1.8 million in 2010.
That decline has been fueled by greater access to the medications that help more people live with the disease. An estimated 8 million people in low- and middle-income countries are now receiving antiretroviral drugs, and the United Nations has set a target to raise that to 15 million people by 2015.
"One of the key messages that I believe will come out of the conference is one of optimism and hope that we should be able to achieve the 15 million target by 2015," Dr. Gottfried Hirnschall, director of the HIV Department at the World Health Organization, said during a briefing in Geneva.
Paul De Lay, UNAIDS deputy executive director, said overall progress in treating the disease could be jeopardized by a surge in infection seen in smaller patient groups, including in Eastern Europe and the United States.
"We are looking at an epidemic that's going to last another 40 to 50 years to get down to what we would consider the lowest possible number of infections," De Lay said.
"It reminds us that prevention must be sustained, just the way we talk about sustaining treatment. Until we have a vaccine this is still going to have to be part of all countries' health programs," he said.
Public health officials are considering wider use of HIV medications in people who are not infected with the virus but have a high risk of contracting it. Earlier this week, U.S. health regulators for the first time approved use of Gilead Sciences Inc's Truvada drug for preventing HIV.
Researchers are also at work on using HIV-fighting antibodies to prevent infection, and for the first time in years say the efforts could yield a licensed vaccine.
In the meantime, treating more people already infected with HIV remains a priority. In sub-Saharan Africa, a region encompassing countries like Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, UNAIDS estimated that 31 percent fewer people died from AIDS-related causes in 2011 compared with 2005.
The region "has actually been able to scale up more than other parts of the world, more than Eastern Europe and Central Asia, more than North Africa and the Middle East, and even more than Asia, with a 62 percent coverage rate of people eligible for treatment able to access treatment," Hirnschall said.
Access to therapy also led to lower rates of AIDS-related deaths in Latin America, the Caribbean and Oceania.
In Western and Central Europe, as well as North America -- where antiretroviral therapy is extensively available -- the combined number of AIDS-related deaths has varied little over the past decade, totaling about 29,000 last year, according to the U.N.
Death rates were also stable in Asia at an estimated 330,000, while AIDS-related deaths continued to rise in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
New infections among children declined dramatically for the second year in a row amid focused efforts to protect them and their mothers against HIV. About 330,000 children were newly infected with HIV in 2011, down from 570,000 in 2003. (Editing by Michele Gershberg and Maureen Bavdek)