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The so-called "3 by 5 program" - 3 million people on antiretroviral drugs by the end of 2005 - was launched in December 2003. However, a progress report issued by the World Health Organization said only 1.3 million people in poorer countries were being treated at the end of last year.

"Obviously it is regrettable that the target of 3 million wasn’t reached, and that does mean people have died and continue to die of what is a treatable disease," Dr. Kevin De Cock, the AIDS director at WHO, told The Associated Press in an interview Monday.

De Cock said, though, the number of people being treated at the end of 2005 was more than triple the number of people on the drugs two years earlier. He said the program helped lay the groundwork for the more ambitious goal of achieving nearly universal access to the medicine by 2010, set by leaders of the Group of Eight nations last year.

Dr. Paul Zeitz, executive director of the advocacy group Global AIDS Alliance, also said that despite the shortfall, the program "is not a failure."

"This report shows that setting an ambitious goal can catalyze bold action," Zeitz said. "The impressive expansion of treatment sites, even in very poor countries like Malawi, shows that significant progress is possible, even in difficult settings."

Some 3 million people die of AIDS each year, he said, and WHO believes the program averted between 250,000 and 350,000 deaths in 2005.

"It is the aspiration that anybody with HIV should have access to treatment, and care and prevention services should be delivered everywhere they’re needed," De Cock told the AP.

The WHO report said the world spent $8.3 billion on AIDS last year, up from $4.7 billion in 2003. Much of the funds came from the U.S. government, the World Bank and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria.

Treatment in southern Africa, a focus of the program, has risen sharply.

"Some countries have done extremely well, like Botswana," De Cock said. "South Africa has actually scaled up pretty substantially. But they’ve all got to do better."

Other regions are also of concern, De Cock said, such as India, where a large number of people are infected and treatment access is still very low.

A general goal is to expand testing because most people who are HIV-positive don’t know it.

Testing for children in particular needs to be more widespread so that infected youngsters can be identified quickly and started on treatment, he said. Health workers have to act quickly because about half of AIDS-infected children die before the age of 2.