(RxWiki News) Today is World AIDS Day, a special day to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS and to bring people together in the fight against the epidemic. This year's theme is "Focus, Partner, Achieve: An AIDS-Free Generation."
HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus, attacks the immune system. Over time, HIV can weaken the immune system to the point that the body cannot fight off infections and disease. When that happens, HIV leads to AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the first cases of AIDS in 1981. Today, an estimated 35 million people worldwide are infected with HIV. In the United States, an estimated 1.2 million people are living with HIV, and almost 1 in 7 of those people don't know they are infected.
World AIDS Day highlights the global effort to reduce these numbers while recognizing the ongoing need to increase awareness and improve education about HIV and AIDS.
The number of new HIV infections each year in the US has fallen by more than two-thirds since the height of the epidemic in the 1980s. During that time, the number of new cases was about 130,000 per year. Today, it is around 50,000. Prevention efforts have kept these rates stable in recent years, the CDC says.
Since the late 1990s, treatment for HIV has improved significantly. While improved treatment has helped people with HIV live longer, healthier lives, it also means that many more people are living with HIV. According to the CDC, continued growth in the number of people with HIV might lead to more infections if prevention, care and treatment efforts are not targeted to those at greatest risk.
So, who's at greatest risk? In the US, the most affected group is gay or bisexual men. But heterosexuals and injection drug users are still significantly affected by HIV. While an estimated 63 percent of new HIV infections in 2010 occurred through male-to-male sex, a still substantial 25 percent of new infections occurred through heterosexual sex. Injection drug users represented about 8 percent of new infections.
Preventing the spread of HIV requires knowing how it is transmitted. According to AVERT, and international HIV and AIDS charity based in the UK, the three main ways HIV can be transmitted are through sex, through blood and from mother to child. Prevention methods address these three transmission routes.
Methods to prevent HIV transmission through sex include condom use and safer sex education. To stop the spread of HIV through blood, prevention efforts focus on screening blood products and reducing needle sharing.
Another key component of HIV prevention efforts is treatment. Treatment as prevention has been used to reduce the risk of mothers passing HIV to their babies. Antiretroviral therapy can reduce the amount of HIV in a patient's blood and thus lower the likelihood that the virus will be passed on to someone else. A type of HIV treatment known as pre-exposure prophylaxis can also lower the risk of transmission among people who might be exposed to HIV, such as someone whose partner has HIV.
The organizers of World AIDS Day want to improve public understanding of how HIV is transmitted, how it can be prevented and the reality of living with HIV today. Their hope is that this knowledge will lead people to take care of their own health, as well as the health of others.
World AIDS Day may be just one day, but the organizers stress the need for awareness and fundraising efforts to continue year-round.