CORONADO, Calif.--The real threat to the future security of the world might just be the AIDS virus, according to a U.N. official.
More than 25 years after the discovery of the virus that causes AIDS, 65 million people have been infected and 25 million have died, said Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, at the Future in Review conference. The way the world looks at AIDS is changing from short-term fear to long-term worries about the stability of countries that fail to control the epidemic, he said.
"It's moved into one of the defining issues of our time," Piot said. Countries in the Americas, Europe and Africa have been dealing with these problems for years, but countries such as Russia and China are starting to realize they will have to plan for AIDS as a way of maintaining stability, not just as a public health problem.
Russia has the fastest-growing rate of infection, and some countries in Africa are staggering with 30 to 40 percent of their citizens infected. "When one-third of your population has an incurable disease, that's destabilizing for your country," Piot said.
Progress is being made, Piot said. The political will of major countries to fight AIDS has never been stronger, and as a result contributions to AIDS programs have never been higher. The key? Governments and research organizations are starting to see a "return on investment," not just good will, from their contributions toward fighting AIDS.
Still, little progress has been made on a vaccine, which is an old story, Piot said. Since the 1980s, researchers working on vaccines have promised results in "five years," and that marker keeps moving out. "This is the smartest virus we know."