Next Wednesday, Dec. 1, is World AIDS Day. It would be great if we could say that the threat of HIV and AIDS is over, but that isn’t the case in the United States and in many other less developed countries. AIDS/HIV remains an enormous health-care problem. It is present in every corner of the world, infecting more than 40 million men, women and children today. Approximately 95 percent of all AIDS cases occur in the world’s poorest countries, such as sub-Saharan Africa.
The United Nations estimates that there are currently 25 million AIDS orphans. Five million people were infected worldwide last year alone and it is now estimated that five people die of AIDS every minute of every day. AIDS has killed more than 33.2 million people since it was first recognized in 1981, making it the most destructive epidemic ever recorded in history. And while it is true that the vast majority of these cases are not occurring right under our noses, they are occurring in our world and we must work with other countries to stop the disease. Despite recent improved access to antiretroviral treatment and care in many regions of the world, the AIDS epidemic claimed an estimated 2 million lives in 2007, of which about 270,000 were children.
In the United States, there are approximately 1 million people living with HIV and approximately 40,000 new infections occur each year — half of which occur in people 25 years old or younger. Every nine and a half minutes, another person in the United States becomes infected with HIV, which averages around 56,300 new infections each year. One in five of the more than 1 million people in this country living with HIV is unaware of their infection and many may be unknowingly transmitting HIV to others. More than 14,000 people with AIDS still die each year in the United States.
The impact in the United States remains most severe among gay and bisexual men, African-Americans and Hispanics/Latinos. Men who have sex with men account for more than half of all new HIV infections and nearly half of people living with HIV. And although African-Americans make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population, they make up nearly half of both new HIV infections and people living with HIV. The rate of new HIV infections for black men is six times that of white men; for black women, it is 15 times that of white women. Hispanics/Latinos are 13 percent of the U.S. population, but make up 17 percent of new HIV infections and 18 percent of people living with HIV.
HIV/AIDS is a life-threatening infectious disease associated with a degradation of the body (that includes lesions and wasting disorders). The outward characteristics of the disease have obviously contributed to the stigma and discrimination associated with people infected with HIV/AIDS, but this stigma is illogical and harmful when it is put into action and it must not interfere with our obligation to eliminate HIV/AIDS in every country.
There is currently no cure or vaccine against HIV/AIDS but there is new medications that can help people with HIV and AIDS remain healthier longer, so it is very important to get tested early and start treatment. It is also important to understand what causes the disease and how it can be prevented. What you don’t know can and will hurt you. Listed below are the ways HIV can be contracted:
• Sex: Whatever your sexuality (it doesn’t matter), if you have vaginal or anal sex with someone who has HIV and you don’t use a condom, you can become infected with HIV. Oral sex without a condom also carries a risk of HIV and other infections.
• Sharing needles: If you share needles or other drug-injecting equipment that contains traces of HIV infected blood, you can become infected with HIV.
• Mother to baby: If a pregnant woman has HIV, she can pass it on to her child in three ways: during pregnancy, during birth or through breastfeeding. But there are proven steps mothers can take to reduce the possibility of their unborn child contracting HIV. Without intervention, 15-30 percent of babies born to HIV-positive mothers become infected during pregnancy or delivery and about 10-29 percent contract the virus through breast milk if breastfed for two years.
• Infected blood: You can become infected with HIV by receiving infected blood, blood products or donated organs as part of medical treatment. In the United States, the chance of this happening is remote as all blood, blood products and donated organs are screened for HIV and infected materials destroyed.
The theme for World AIDS Day for the last five years has been “Stop AIDS. Keep the promise” with a yearly sub-theme. This year’s sub-theme is “act aware,” so plan to wear a red ribbon Dec. 1 to demonstrate your awareness of HIV/AIDS and as a symbol of respect for those who have died of AIDS, of concern for those living with it and as a reminder to all of us of the constant need to keep up the fight against AIDS.
Ratcliffe is a consultant with the Georgia Coastal Public Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.