By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - The United Nations said on Wednesday new HIV infections and deaths from AIDS were decreasing, making it possible to control the epidemic by 2030 and eventually end it "in every region, in every country".
"More than ever before, there is hope that ending AIDS is possible. However, a business-as-usual approach or simply sustaining the AIDS response at its current pace cannot end the epidemic," the U.N. AIDS programme UNAIDS said in a global report issued ahead of an AIDS conference in Melbourne, Australia next week.
It said the number of people infected with HIV was stabilising at around 35 million worldwide. The epidemic had killed some 39 million of the 78 million people it has affected since it began in the 1980s.
"The AIDS epidemic can be ended in every region, every country, in every location, in every population and every community," Michel Sidibe, the director of UNAIDS, said in the report. "There are multiple reasons why there is hope and conviction about this goal."
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS can be transmitted via blood, breast milk and by semen during sex, but can be kept in check with cocktails of drugs known as antiretroviral therapy or ART.
UNAIDS said that at the end of 2013, some 12.9 million HIV positive people had access to antiretroviral therapy - a dramatic improvement on the 10 million who were on treatment just one year earlier and the only 5 million who were getting AIDS drugs in 2010.
Since 2001, new HIV infections have fallen by 38 percent, it said. AIDS-related deaths have fallen by 35 percent since a peak in 2005.
"The world has witnessed extraordinary changes in the AIDS landscape. There have been more achievements in the past five years than in the preceding 23 years," the report said.
"More than ever before, there is hope that ending AIDS is possible. However, a business-as-usual approach or simply sustaining the AIDS response at its current pace cannot end the epidemic."
The U.N. report said ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030 would mean the spread of HIV was being controlled or contained, and that the impact of the virus in societies and in people's lives had been reduced by significant declines in ill health, stigma, deaths and the number of AIDS orphans.
"It means increased life expectancy, unconditional acceptance of people's diversity and rights, and increased productivity and reduced costs as the impact diminishes."
According to UNAIDS, $19.1 billion was available from all sources for the AIDS response in 2013, and the estimated annual need by 2015 is currently between $22 billion and $24 billion.
Sidibe said the international community should seize the opportunity to turn the epidemic around.
"We have a fragile five-year window to build on the rapid results that been made. The next five years will determine the next 15," he said.
In 2011, U.N. member states agreed to a target of getting HIV treatment to 15 million people by 2015. As countries scaled up treatment coverage, and evidence showed how treating HIV early also reduces its spread, the World Health Organisation (WHO) set new guidelines last year, expanding the number of people needing treatment by more than 10 million.
Jennifer Cohn, medical director of the access campaign for the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said millions of HIV positive people still do not get the drugs they need.
"Providing life-saving HIV treatment to nearly 12 million people in the developing world is a significant achievement, but more than half of people in need still do not have access," she said. "We know that early treatment helps prevent transmission of HIV and keeps people healthy; we need to respond to HIV in all contexts and make treatment accessible to everyone in need as soon as possible."