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Some parts of the world saw increases in HIV cases

CHERYL CORLEY, HOST:

Over the last two decades, new HIV infections have declined globally, and that's great news, but a new report out this week revealed some troubling information. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS, also known as UNAIDS, says new HIV infections did drop between 2020 and 2021, but it was the smallest annual decline in the past six years. And even more concerning, multiple areas - including Asia and the Pacific, the world's most populous region - saw increases in infections. If not treated properly, HIV infections can turn into AIDS, and the U.N. had previously set a goal of ending AIDS by 2030. But now, that appears to be in jeopardy. Here to talk more about the report and what needs to be done to bring down the numbers of new HIV infections is Matthew Cavanaugh. He's the deputy executive director for UNAIDS. Welcome.

MATTHEW KAVANAGH: Thanks for having me.

CORLEY: So we are witness now to the smallest annual decline in HIV infections in years and seeing increases in some areas. What seems to be driving the numbers?

KAVANAGH: So the combination of COVID-19, war in Ukraine and the following economic crisis has really undermined the AIDS response worldwide - really diverting attention and money and people. As you said, we now see, you know, multiple regions - Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Latin America, the Middle East. And now, for the first time, Asia Pacific, where we had seen falling new infections, we now see rising new HIV infections. This is deeply worrying, and it's really being driven by the impact of these multiple crises on the public health response to the AIDS pandemic.

CORLEY: You talk about where we're seeing these numbers increase. Who is being infected the most?

KAVANAGH: So what we see in 2022 is that HIV is increasingly being driven by a set of global inequalities and local inequalities. Gay men and other men who have sex with men around the world have 28 times the rate of HIV acquisition of those people that are the same age and the same gender as they are. Young women in Africa are really experiencing big challenges when it comes to HIV. Young women are three times as likely as boys and young men of the same age to acquire HIV. And so really, we're thinking about this now as a gendered pandemic and a pandemic that is deeply marked by other inequalities.

CORLEY: Well, it's kind of interesting because you mentioned earlier, you know, all of the other factors or conditions that might have an impact on that - you know, there's an economic downturn here in the United States; the COVID-19 pandemic, which you talked about; and the monkeypox outbreak and the war in Ukraine. That's all making it more difficult to fight this virus. And how do you get back on track?

KAVANAGH: What we have right now is colliding pandemics. We have HIV. We have COVID-19 that is still taking, you know, many, many lives. Now, we have the monkeypox outbreak. And all of this is happening amidst the war. And so really, the core question is - do we actually value the lives of young adolescent women in east and southern Africa? Do we actually value the lives of gay men and people around the world? If we do, what we're actually talking about is not that difficult, right? We're talking about a drop in the bucket, right? Wealthy countries around the world, of course, have poured trillions and trillions of dollars into COVID recovery, etc., and then the core question is going to be political will.

The core question is - can we find the kind of solidarity for AIDS that we've really struggled to find for COVID-19? And I hope we also can find that for monkeypox at the same time. And so if we can kind of switch the agenda here and actually kind of move a political dial that doesn't require that much energy, I think we can get back on track. We actually do think that that's possible, but the next year to two years is going to make or break that goal.

CORLEY: Hmm. Is there anything in this report that gives you any kind of hope for the fight against HIV?

KAVANAGH: There's a lot of hopeful pieces here. You know, we have seen remarkable declines in some places - in Nigeria, in South Africa, in parts of the rest of the world. And so one of the lessons for us is that, in a pandemic, the core question is - have you funded community organizations? Have we built a kind of community infrastructure able to fight pandemics? And where we have - to me, I'm deeply hopeful because, where we have, it has shown us how remarkable the resilience has been.

CORLEY: That was Matthew Kavanagh, the deputy executive director for the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS. Thank you so much for joining us.

KAVANAGH: Thank you so much for drawing attention to this issue. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.