PARIS (AFP) - Five million people will have become infected with HIV this year, bringing to a record 42 million the number of individuals living with AIDS or the virus that causes it, the United Nations said.
The pandemic will amplify the impact of a famine threatening southern Africa and is poised to scythe through the complacent republics of the former Soviet Union and Asia's big-population countries, it said.
The report was to be published in Geneva and presented in London by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) ahead of World AIDS Day next Sunday.
Fourteen thousand people each day catch the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), it said.
This year, the disease caused by HIV, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, will claim 3.1 million lives, the highest annual total in the 20-year history of the disease.
In 2001, the number of people then living with HIV/AIDS was estimated at 40 million, and AIDS killed 3.0 million that year.
The worst-hit region remains southern Africa, where the pandemic will magnify the effects of a famine threatening 14.4 million in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, the report said.
These countries have primarily agricultural economies, which means that rural households struggling to cope with the loss of an income-earner through AIDS are dealt a double blow when crops start to fail.
In 2001 alone, AIDS killed nearly half a million people in the six famine-threatened countries, most of whom were in their productive prime.
"The famine is a tragic example of how this epidemic combines with other crises to create even greater catastrophes," UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot said.
"What is happening today in southern Africa illustrates that AIDS cannot be addressed in isolation. Responses to AIDS must take into account that the epidemic has an impact in every economic and social sector."
Africa south of the Sahara accounts for more than two-thirds of HIV infections and AIDS deaths.
But the document also issues a stark warning about Eastern Europe and the Central Asian republics, where HIV infection, propelled by shared use of drug syringes, makes it the fastest-growing region in the global pandemic. The HIV/AIDS numbers there rose by some 250,000 to 1.2 million.
In Asia, hopes of combatting HIV at an early stage are diminishing rapidly as the infection rate rises in the big-population countries of China, India and Indonesia.
An estimated 7.2 million people in Asia and the Pacific have HIV, a million more than a year ago, and that figure could soar to more than 18 million by 2007 unless "concerted and effective action" is done, especially in prevention.
"We know there is a point in every country's AIDS crisis where the epidemic breaks out from especially vulnerable groups into the wider population," WHO Director General Gro Harlem Brundtland said.
"This is critical moment of opportunity and danger. Unless we see national prevention initiatives championed by the highest levels of government, the growth in infections can be unstoppable.
"We are at this critical moment today in a number of countries in Eastern Europe, central, south and eastern Asia."
The picture is not entirely bleak, though.
The report, entitled AIDS Epidemic Update 2002, praises South Africa and Ethiopia for awareness campaigns and prevention programmes that are at last starting to brake the inroads of HIV among their young.
In South Africa, the number of pregnant women under the age of 20 who are HIV positive fell to 15.4 percent last year, compared to 21 percent in 1998.
In Ethiopia, the HIV "also appears to be in decline" among young inner-city women in the capital, Addis Ababa. Similar findings have been previously reported in Uganda and Zambia.
Piot made a fresh appeal for funds to fight the pandemic.
His organisation estimates the needs, in low- and middle-income countries, to be at least 10.5 billion dollars per year by 2005.
By 2007, the contributions would have to rise to around 15 billion dollars, and keep at that level for at least a decade thereafter.