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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – About 1.2 million people in countries hard hit by AIDS are receiving life-extending drugs thanks to two major U.S. and international funds, double from a year ago, but many millions more need help, the funds said on Friday.The figures were announced on World AIDS Day as activists around the world turned a spotlight on the scourge of AIDS and pleaded for more action.

South Africa unveiled a draft five-year plan to combat HIV/AIDS, the World Health Organization said prevention and treatment programs often do not reach those at highest risk, and hundreds of HIV-infected protesters gathered in New Delhi.

More than 25 million people have died of AIDS since the incurable disease, which ravages the body’s immune system, was first recognized in 1981. Almost 40 million people now live with the HIV virus that causes AIDS, with sub-Saharan Africa the hardest hit region.

Returns on investments in AIDS research have been significant. Within three years, the virus that causes the syndrome, HIV, was discovered and risk factors and methods of transmission identified. In 1984, a sensitive and specific diagnostic test for antibodies to HIV was developed and used to screen the U.S. blood supply, ensuring its safety since 1985 in the U.S. The widespread availability and use of diagnostic and screening tests, including new rapid HIV tests and mail-in home sampling kits, have promoted increased individual knowledge of HIV serostatus. However, among the 1.6 million Americans living with HIV/AIDS in the U.S., an estimated 25% are still unaware that they are infected and may be unknowingly passing the disease along to their partners. This problem is exacerbated in the developing world where lack of access to health care and means of transportation to testing facilities as well as stigma, fear of AIDS-related violence, and discrimination prevent many individuals from returning to find out their test results, or worse yet, from being tested at all.

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