What global progress has been made on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment?

By Brooke Faulkner

Over the last couple of decades, there has been a lot of progress made towards preventing HIV/AIDS from spreading in at-risk communities and developing treatments that can keep those with the virus alive. These are milestones of progress, considering that between 1970 and the late 1990s, HIV/AIDS was largely misunderstood and considered a death sentence for those who contracted the virus. 

Today, medications are able to not only treat HIV, they can prevent hundreds of thousands of at-risk individuals from contracting the immunodeficient virus. 

The reason for the huge progress in treating this infection has been the resources dedicated to finding a cure. At its peak, millions of people were dying each year from HIV/AIDS. The severity of the epidemic has been contained, and now the number of people who die from HIV/AIDS related complications each year hovers right around one million. 

History of HIV/AIDS

HIV is believed to have initially developed as a virus in chimpanzees, and in the 1920s, it was transferred onto humans through hunters in Africa who killed and either ate the primates or got the infected blood on their own cuts and wounds. In the following decades, the disease spread from Africa to Haiti and the Caribbean through travelers, migrants, and via the sex trade. From the Caribbean, it spread to New York City in the 1970s, and later on in the decade, it spread to San Francisco. 

Therefore, HIV/AIDS was a relatively new disease only 50 years ago, and it took a few decades before doctors found out what caused the infection and the impact of the virus on the body. With millions of people dying from the infection, medical scientists all around the world began to research the disease and how to treat it. By 2000, they had developed ways to treat the virus — though these methods compromised a person’s immunity, which leads to death by many causes. 

The virus is transmitted through bodily fluids. Although it can affect any person, the most at-risk group is gay men, who researchers say have a 50 percent chance of contracting HIV by the time they’re 50 years old. Around the world, there are more than 38 million people living with HIV/AIDS. 

Although there are effective treatments and habits for preventing HIV/AIDS, a lack of education and access to care keep this public health problem at the forefront of the medical community and health organizations. 

Global Progress on Prevention

One of the biggest efforts towards getting HIV/AIDS under control has been to develop effective preventative care to keep the virus from spreading. Preventative care involves regularly testing for the virus in at-risk groups, but also, at least on occasion, testing people who are sexually active in general, as there are often bridge populations that spread HIV/AIDS to other communities. 

Although 75 percent of people living with HIV are aware of it, the other 25 percent don’t realize they contracted the virus, and are therefore unable to warn their sexual partners or take preventative measures to keep it from spreading. However, access to care plays into this as well, as many of those individuals who don’t know they have HIV don’t have access to regular testing, doctors, or healthcare. 

One reason that people often do not realize they’ve contracted HIV is because of the way the virus presents itself. Within the first month, most people have symptoms that often appear similar to flu symptoms, such as: fever, chills, rash, night sweats, muscle aches, sore throat, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, and mouth ulcers. These symptoms can easily be mistaken for a commonplace ailment, and without a doctor visit and test to confirm, people may not realize they have the virus until they’ve already spread it to someone else. 

If more people had access to affordable medical care, the number of people who contract HIV/AIDS would drop because testing would prevent people from unknowingly spreading the infection. In general, if preventative medicine was applied to 90 percent of patients, 100,000 lives could be saved annually.

Over the last 30 years, medical advances have transformed HIV into a chronic but manageable condition, rather than a fatal disease. The basic treatment that has helped advance treatment is called antiretroviral therapy (ART), which involves taking a combination of medications each day for the treatment of HIV. 

Every person who is diagnosed with HIV should be on an HIV treatment regimen, not only to live a longer and healthier life, but also to reduce their risk of transmitting the disease to others, as this medication reduces the viral load in body fluids.

Advances in Medical Treatment

In the U.S., there are an estimated 1.1 million people living with HIV, in Europe, there are 2 million, and in Africa, there are 23.8 million. Recognizing the extent of this worldwide issue, especially in Africa where the disease runs rampant due to lack of access to care, resources from around the world have been dedicated to containing the virus and preventing it from spreading further.

In eastern and southern Africa, accessibility to HIV testing services provided 61 percent of pregnant women with the opportunity to get testing and counseling for HIV, which is up from 14 percent in 2005. In 2010, almost half of the pregnant women who needed assistance were able to receive the medication they needed to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. 

In the U.S. and Europe, the use of HIV medications, as well as other prevention treatment methods have helped reduce the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV to less than one percent. This medication helps prevent the spread of HIV to the fetus through the placenta when treatment begins early enough, and it reduces the baby’s chance of becoming infected through contact with the mother’s cervical secretions or blood — although a c-section may be required. 

As access to preventative care and treatment for HIV/AIDS improves, more people with the disease are living longer. In low and middle-income countries, 6.65 million people are seeking help, which is almost 50 percent of those who are eligible for low-income treatment. Although people don’t really have a choice but to treat their disease, it has gotten easier to treat HIV/AIDS since developing specific medications for treatment. In the mid-1990s, treatment entailed about 20 high-strength tablets that did not effectively address the disease.

Now that only a few medications are needed to allow a person with HIV/AIDS to live a relatively normal life, more people than ever are being treated for the disease and managing their condition. Treatment is now more accessible to around the world and especially to low-income populations, who are some of the most at-risk demographics. HIV/AIDS has had a serious and tragic impact on populations worldwide, and global progress has now been made and continues to be made to protect people from this deadly disease.

Brooke Faulkner is a writer and mom based in the Pacific Northwest. She writes about issues important to her and her family, in hopes that spreading knowledge will help inform people on the decisions being made that affect their lives. You can find more of her writing on contently or twitter.

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