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Facts and figures about AIDS and the epidemic

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DURBAN, South Africa — About 11,000 delegates from 178 nations will attend the 13th International Conference on AIDS that starts on Sunday. It is the first time the conference is being held in a developing country or in Africa.

Following are key facts and figures about the disease that has killed 18.8 million people since the beginning of the epidemic.

AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) was first reported in 1981 among homosexual men in the United States. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS was identified by 1983.

AIDS is the fourth leading global cause of death, according to UNAIDS. At the end of 1999, 34.3 million adults and children worldwide were living with HIV/AIDS. More than 5 million people are newly infected each year.

24.5 million people are living with the disease in sub-Saharan Africa, 5.6 million in South/Southeast Asia, 1.3 million in Latin America, 900,000 in North America and 520,000 in western Europe.

Worldwide, 54 percent of people with the HIV virus are men, but women are contracting it at a faster rate. In Africa, 20 percent more women than men are living with HIV.

There are now 16 countries in which more than one-tenth of the adult population aged 15-49 is infected with HIV. In seven countries, all in the southern cone of the African continent, at least one adult in five is living with the virus.

So far, the AIDS epidemic has left behind 13.2 million orphans — children 15 years old or younger who have lost one or both parents to the disease.

At least one of every two 15-year-old boys in Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana is on track to die of AIDS.

With a total of 4.2 million infected people, South Africa has the largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world.

In Botswana, 35.8 percent of adults are now infected with HIV.

AIDS is a syndrome, a combination of illnesses. The HIV virus attacks the immune system and leaves the body vulnerable to a variety of life-threatening diseases, so-called opportunistic infections, such as tuberculosis.

The HIV virus is found in semen, blood, breast milk and other body fluids. It reproduces inside CD4 blood cells, which normally protect the body against infection.

It is transmitted through sexual contact, blood transfusions and needle sharing and from pregnant women to the fetus and through an infected mother nursing her baby.

There is no known cure, but drugs that suppress the replication of the HIV infection have prolonged the lives of sufferers in countries that can afford them.

Scientists are also trying to develop a vaccine. An effective, affordable preventive vaccine against HIV is considered the best hope of bringing the global epidemic under control.

HIV is a slow-acting virus. It can lay dormant in the body for up to 10 years before a person is diagnosed.

HIV is detected through a blood test for the antibodies against the virus. There are two predominant types of HIV: HIV-1 and HIV-2. Worldwide, the predominant virus is HIV-1. There are also subtypes of the HIV virus.

Community-based groups, non-governmental organizations and associations of people living with AIDS have been keen players in the fight against AIDS. They have publicized the disease, pushed for more research and funding and organized prevention programs.