The United Nations has radically lowered years of estimates of the number of people worldwide infected by the AIDS virus, revealing that the AIDS pandemic is waning for the first time since HIV was discovered 26 years ago.
The revised figures yesterday, which were the result of more sophisticated sampling techniques, indicate that the number of new infections peaked in 1998 and that the number of deaths peaked in 2005.
The new analysis shows that the total number of people living with HIV has been gradually increasing - but at a slower rate than in the past.
Hints of those trends were present in the older estimates but at much greater numbers.
UNAIDS estimated that about 2.5 million people will be infected with the AIDS virus, called HIV, this year - a 40 percent drop from the 2006 estimate, in a report issued yesterday.
The report also said that about 33 million people worldwide are infected with the virus, compared with last year's estimate of almost 40 million.
Reports in the past decade or longer have portrayed a pandemic spiraling out of control, but improved methods of counting AIDS victims have revealed a different picture.
The new estimates also reflect improved treatment rates and changes in sexual behavior.
"For the first time, we are seeing a decline in global AIDS deaths," said Dr. Kevin De Cock, director of the AIDS department at the World Health Organization.
The numbers have been highly politicized because they are used to govern the distribution of the billions of dollars in aid from industrialized countries - an estimated $10 billion this year.
Dr. James Chin of the University of California at Berkeley, a former WHO AIDS expert who has been tracking the AIDS epidemic since it first emerged in California in the 1980s, has been arguing for years that the UNAIDS figures have been inflated.
"It's getting closer to what it ought to be, but it's still high," he said.
Chin estimated the total number of cases worldwide at between 20 million and 30 million.
Jia-Rui Chong and Thomas H. Maugh II write for the Los Angeles Times.