By Dr. Kandis Y. Wyatt, PMP
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics
World AIDS Day is December 1, 2021. This day is a time to raise awareness and advocacy of the disease known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
First started in 1988, World AIDS Day is annually observed around the world. AIDS has been detected in over 120 countries, including the United States, and has infected millions of people.
The theme for the 2021 World AIDS Day is “Ending the HIV Epidemic: Equitable Access, Everyone’s Voice.” This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first reported case of AIDS and highlights the decades-long effort to eradicate AIDS through determination, courage, progress, and hope. According to HIV.gov, more than 36 million people worldwide, including 700,000 in the United States, have died from AIDS-related illnesses.
The Difference Between HIV and AIDS
It’s important, however, to distinguish between HIV and AIDS. While the two terms are used interchangeably, they refer to two different aspects of the disease.
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that targets the immune system and weakens a patient’s defense against many infections. As HIV infection progresses, it affects people in various ways, making HIV more and more difficult to combat as the immune system weakens.
Eventually, a patient reaches immunodeficiency from the virus destroying and impairing the function of immune cells. Immune function is typically measured by CD4 cell count.
HIV infection becomes AIDS once the CD4 cell count drops below 200. AIDS is also defined by the development of certain cancers, infections or other severe, long-term clinical illnesses.
The Symptoms of AIDS
AIDS is contracted by the exchange of bodily fluids through intercourse, blood transfusions, needle usage or tissue transplants. Early symptoms of HIV infection include fever, headache, rash or sore throat.
In some cases, there are no symptoms at all or the symptoms mirror more common illnesses such as influenza. As a result, many AIDS patients have reported that they were unaware of the disease until it progressed to a later stage.
Patients with AIDS Can Live Longer, Thanks to New Treatments
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 33 million people have died of HIV since the start of the AIDS epidemic. In 2020, 37.7 million people were living with HIV and around 680,000 died.
As grim as these figures are, that’s still down from the 1.3 million people who died of HIV just 10 years ago. According to POZ, “Scientific discovery has yielded HIV advances that were unavailable and even unimaginable just a decade ago, supported by people with lived experience, communities affected by HIV, and cooperation among governments, private companies, and academic and research institutions. New discoveries and innovations in HIV research, prevention, care, and treatment have contributed to reducing new HIV transmissions and ensuring individuals with HIV can live long, healthy lives.”
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World AIDS Day Is a Time to Educate People about AIDS
Even though AIDS has been around for over 40 years, there are still many prevalent misconceptions about AIDS:
- If contracted, AIDS is fatal. To the contrary, people infected with AIDS can live a long, healthy life.
- You can tell when a person has AIDS. There are no physical traits common to everyone infected with AIDS, so AIDS is not visually detectable.
- AIDS only affects homosexuals. To the contrary, AIDS can be contracted through intercourse with straight partners and is not exclusively a disease limited to one sector of the world’s population.
While AIDS is on the decline, it has not been completely eradicated. There is a need to continue the aggressive global prevention tactics to keep the number of infections moving in a downward trend. Here are some preventative steps according to HIV.org;
- Testing – Knowing if you are HIV-positive is key to preventing the spread of AIDS. When testing services are limited, HIV prevention diminishes. Testing is the first step to proper treatment, care and support.
- Treatment access – Once a person is diagnosed with HIV, he or she needs to start treatment immediately. Sadly, there are many counties that do not offer HIV treatment, which is causing the disease to be spread to both adults and children.
- Ongoing treatment – While AIDS is not curable, ongoing treatment can help to suppress the virus. Ongoing treatment includes diagnosis, medical care, teaching and training to ultimately achieve the goal of viral suppression.
- Reducing transmission – Reducing mother-to-child transmission means providing HIV tests to pregnant women and if needed, providing medication to mothers in order to prevent unborn children from contracting the virus.
- Equitable treatment and resources around the world – Most people infected with HIV are from middle- and low-income communities. A focus on equitable treatment and providing resources to impoverished communities are important steps toward eliminating new infections in these communities.
What Can We Learn from the AIDS Epidemic?
To eliminate AIDS, there are important lessons we should keep in mind so that we can continue to make further progress in eliminating this disease:
- Health resources should be a priority for all countries. Everyone should have equal access to health providers and medical treatment.
- Ongoing education is key. Through proper education, people will receive accurate information to help them combat new AIDS infections.
- Epidemic and pandemics are inevitable. Proper planning is needed to promptly address emerging health issues.
- There needs to be ongoing research. We must continue to develop new technologies to combat infectious diseases like AIDS.
- We need to eliminate AIDS-related misconceptions. In addition, avoiding the discrimination of key populations, including the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ), minority, and low-income communities, should be an ongoing effort.
- Social justice plans are needed. Adequate resources for combating AIDS need to be provided to all communities and countries.
- Global solidarity needs to be developed. By developing a feeling of solidarity among nations, that will drive future AIDS research and treatment.
- We need to reduce health inequities. These inequities continue to create health hazards with a local, national and global impact. Telehealth services and similar services are needed to provide people with up-to-date medical information.
- Frontline healthcare workers need more resources. By providing more resources, healthcare providers can better treat infected patients.
While there is no cure for AIDS, HIV infection can be managed through medication, diet and exercise. However, some medications are cost-prohibitive for low-income individuals or not accessible in some countries, which contributes to the spread of AIDS.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, communities and countries have continued HIV/AIDS treatment. We now understand the virus better than ever.
In fact, medical data shows that the worldwide response to the AIDS epidemic is moving in the right direction. AIDS-related deaths have been reduced by 61% since their peak in 2004 through awareness campaigns such as World AIDS Day.
Ending the AIDS epidemic requires further communication, resources, and planning on a global level, which includes increasing public awareness of this disease and accessibility to medication and programs. Through a united global effort, we will be able to reduce further transmissions and fatalities.