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Taking Stock on World AIDS Day

Dec 01, 2011

December 1 is World AIDS Day, a day that brings awareness to AIDS and the virus that causes it, HIV. 

It’s observed in many ways.  Some people have memorial services for loved ones who have died of AIDS.  Others organize or attend events that teach people about HIV transmission and ways to prevent it.  No matter how it’s observed, World AIDS Day often a very personal day of reflection.

To commemorate World AIDS Day, we thought it would be helpful to talk a bit about where the world stands with AIDS today and its current status in the United States.  We’ll also talk about ways that you and your partner can protect yourselves from HIV transmission.

AIDS:  Background

2011 marks thirty years since the first case of AIDS was recognized.  Scientists believe HIV originated with chimpanzees in West Africa.  Infected chimpanzees had a version of HIV called SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus, as opposed to the human immunodeficiency virus found in people).  When hunters killed the chimpanzees for food, they could be infected with SIV by coming into contact with the chimpanzees’ blood.  From there, SIV mutated into HIV and its spread started around Africa, then around the world.

HIV works by destroying specific blood cells that are critical for fighting disease.  A person with HIV can feel healthy for years, but the infection still persists.  AIDS is the later stage of the infection, when the immune system is severely compromised.  At this time, the body has an even harder time fighting disease.

HIV is commonly transmitted through sexual activity and injected drug use.

Even though some medications can help people with HIV live longer before they develop AIDS, there is currently no cure for HIV infection.

AIDS Worldwide

In November 2011, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) reported that worldwide, HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths have fallen significantly.  Since 1997, new HIV infections have decreased by 21%.  Death from AIDS-related illness have fallen 21% since 2005.  Antiretroviral therapy, which uses at least three antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV infection, has played a large role in these reductions.

However, UNAIDS estimated that at the end of 2010, 34 million people worldwide were living with HIV.  There were also an estimated 2.7 million new HIV infections  and 1.8 million AIDS-related deaths across the globe that year.

AIDS in the United States

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also released key statistics about HIV in the United States in November 2011.  Here are some of the highlights.

In general:

·         1.2 million Americans are living with HIV infection.

·         Of that group, about 20% of people don’t know they’re infected.

·         Approximately 50,000 people in the U.S. are infected with HIV every year.

The most affected subpopulation is men who have sex with men.  In 2009, they represented 61% of all new HIV infections.  (They are just 2% of the U.S. population.)  Heterosexuals accounted for 27% of new infections that year.  9% of new infections were among injection drug users.  And 3% were among men who have sex with men who are also injection drug users.

The CDC estimated that 44% of new HIV infections in 2009 were among African-Americans.   About 20% of new infections were among Latinos that year. 


Even though drugs and programs have been developed for people with HIV, its transmission is still a serious issue.  Here are prevention steps you can take.  Keep in mind that these apply to many sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), not just HIV:

·         Get tested.  The CDC recommends annual testing for people at increased risk.  Knowing your status ahead of time will put your partner at ease.  If you need treatment, start immediately.  And if you’re starting a new relationship, make sure your partner gets tested, too.

·         Abstain from sex.  Abstinence is the only sure-fire way to prevent STD transmission.

·         Stay in a mutually monogamous relationship with someone who is not infected. 

·         Don’t have too many sex partners.  The more partners you have, the higher your risk of getting HIV.

·         Use condoms correctly, every time.  While condoms don’t eliminate the risk of HIV transmission, they do lower it.  If you have questions about condom use, be sure to ask your doctor.

·         Remember that HIV can be transmitted during oral and anal                                                                                                                                                                                               sex, too.  Be sure to protect yourself during these types of sex.  For example, condoms can be cut and used as barriers during oral sex.

·         Don’t inject drugs.  If you need help stopping drug use, talk to your doctor or a counselor.  If you do not stop, be sure to use clean needles and supplies.

If you have any questions about AIDS, HIV, or STDs, don’t hesitate call your healthcare provider.  The conversation may be difficult to start, but doctors and counselors will support you as you ask questions, get tested, and start treatment if you need it.