According to “AIDS Epidemic Update 2001,” the latest figures – though assumed to be largely underestimated – reveal that 75,000 new infections were reported in Russia by early November, a 15-fold increase in just three years.Published by the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO), the report says a particular opportunity for action exists in countries where either the rate of HIV is low or which have large populations. “Low reported national prevalence rates can be misleading because they may be exceedingly high in certain sub-populations,” said Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of WHO. “In many countries, we have to take these figures as warning signs of an impending epidemic, not as excuses for complacency.” In countries with high populations, a few percentage points can translate into millions of individuals infected. Meanwhile, the epidemic continues its rapid spread throughout Africa, with 3.4 million new infections and 2.3 million deaths in 2001. In Swaziland, Botswana and some areas of South Africa, more than 30 per cent of pregnant women are HIV-positive. In West Africa, several countries with previously low infection rates – including Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation – have now passed the five per cent infection mark. To help break the speed at which the epidemic is spreading, the report calls on countries to rapidly put in place effective prevention programmes, particularly to slow HIV among young people, who in many countries have never heard of AIDS or hold serious misconceptions about how the virus is transmitted. At the same time, the need for expanding access to treatment and care remains critical to the success of any efforts to fight AIDS, the report says.In a related development, the head of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said today that one of the most troubling and complex aspects of the spread of HIV/AIDS is its link to the widespread sexual exploitation of children.“Whether it is myths about the curative powers of sex with young girls, or macho attitudes that sanction violent sexual behaviour toward women and girls, the links between sexual abuse of children and the spread of HIV/AIDS are clear,” said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy, calling for more direct action aimed at challenging accepted sexual behaviours, as well as action to protect children from the sex trade to begin with.