The World Health Organisation was struggling yesterday to control the global backlash from an admission by one of its most senior directors that the threat of a generalised heterosexual epidemic of Aids outside Africa may be over.

The WHO has been under siege since Kevin de Cock, head of its HIV/Aids department, told The Independent on Sunday that, outside sub-Saharan Africa, the disease was recognised to be largely limited to high-risk groups, such as injecting drug users.

Facing headlines such as "World Aids pandemic over", specialists fear a media onslaught could hinder efforts to help those infected, and fuel further spread. One said: "People are using the interview to say all scientists are lying and funding for Aids should be cut. Kevin de Cock is the most committed, cautious epidemiologist but now a lot of people want to take him down."

In a statement in response to the interview, the WHO said: "Aids remains the leading infectious disease challenge in global health. To suggest otherwise is irresponsible and misleading."

The latest WHO report says that at the end of 2007 there were 33 million people with HIV; 2.5 million were infected that year; and 2.1 million died of Aids.

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