Monday (Dec. 1) marks the 26th annual World AIDS Day, a global health day dedicated to raising awareness about HIV and AIDS, remembering those who have been lost to the disease, and uniting together to work towards ending the global epidemic.
To coincide with this year’s recognition of World AIDS Day, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has released updated goals for combating the epidemic, saying they hope to eradicate the disease by 2030. Though recent data indicate they gradually are moving toward their goal, at this time HIV/AIDS is still the No. 1 cause of death by infection worldwide.
Since the first cases were reported in the U.S. in 1981, 39 million people have died from the virus, including 1.5 million globally last year alone.
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, kills or damages the body’s immune system cells, which protect people against diseases. HIV is spread most often through unprotected sex with an infected person, but can also be spread by sharing drug needles or through contact with the blood of someone who is infected. Women can also pass it along to their babies during pregnancy or childbirth. The most advanced stage of infection with HIV is AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, which can take two to 15 years to develop. Without treatment, the virus can make people vulnerable to fatal diseases.
There is no cure for the virus, but scientific advancements have helped stabilize those who are infected and help reduce the risk of transmission to others. For example, the development of antiretroviral therapy — medications that can successfully suppress the virus in most cases — has allowed millions of people with HIV to live a normal lifespan while also reducing their risk of infecting others.
In July, the global fight against HIV/AIDS suffered a major blow when as many as 100 HIV/AIDS scientists, researchers, and activists were killed in the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash, while traveling to the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. Former International AIDS Society president Dr. Joep Lange was among the researchers who died.
“Through his research, [Lange] built a body of evidence to prove the transformative effect treatment can have on people living with HIV,” wrote the International AIDS Society at the time. Lange’s partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren, who was a longtime HIV advocate, was also killed in the crash. “Their deaths are a tragic loss to the fight against HIV globally.”
In spite of the losses, there are reasons to be hopeful: The number of people newly infected with HIV has declined since 2001, and the number of deaths AIDS-related has declined since 2005. Treatment is progressing, and scientists have made key findings in recent years; in July, the World Health Organization recommended the use of Pre-exposure prophylaxis like Truvada for HIV-negative partners of people with HIV after finding that, when taken consistently, the antiretroviral reduced the risk of infection by 92 percent.
The U.S. is the largest donor to international aid efforts to combat HIV around the world. In Fiscal Year 2014, Congress appropriated $4.9 billion for bilateral HIV and 1.65 billion for the Global Fund, which is an organization working to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Congressional approval is still pending for Fiscal Year 2015.
As we honor the 26th annual World AIDS Day, here is a look at the numbers behind the global epidemic:
- About 35 million people worldwide have HIV/AIDS, according to 2013 WHO figures. Of these, 3.2 million were children under age 15.
- Africa is most affected by HIV, with 24.7 million people living with the virus 2013. This means that 71 percent of all people who have HIV are living in Africa.
- Despite lower rates of newly infected people, and the fact that fewer people are dying of AIDS, the number of people who currently are HIV-positive has grown from 29.8 million in 2001 because of new infections, people living longer with HIV and general population growth, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
- In 2013, 2.1 million people were newly infected with HIV, according to WHO.
- About 40 percent of new infections are among people younger than age 25, says the Kaiser Family Foundation.
- According to UNAIDS, new infections have fallen by 38 percent since 2001. Among children, new infections have declined by 58 percent during the same time span.
- The peak of AIDS-related deaths was in 2005, when 2.4 million died. In 2013, 1.5 million people died from AIDS-related causes, a decrease of 35 percent.
- People with HIV/AIDS are more susceptible to getting other infections, such as tuberculosis, which is a leading cause of death for people with HIV worldwide. In 2013, approximately 13 percent of new TB cases occurred in people living with HIV. However, between 2004 and 2013, TB deaths in people living with HIV declined by 33 percent, largely because of the scale up of joint HIV/TB services, says the Kaiser Family Foundation.
- A report from UNAIDS shows that 19 million people worldwide who have AIDS don’t know they are infected.
- A report last week from the CDC showed 20 percent of HIV-infected Americans do not know their diagnosis.
Treatment and Prevention Options:
- According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, programs have encouraged the use of condoms during sex, as well as HIV testing, blood supply safety, harm reduction efforts for injecting drug users, and male circumcision.
- Providing HIV treatment to people who have the virus significantly reduces the risk of transmission to partners who do not have it, and the use of antiretroviral-based microbicide gel has been found to reduce the risk of HIV infection in women.
- Pre-exposure antiretroviral prophylaxis (PrEP) has also been shown to be an effective HIV prevention strategy in individuals at high risk for HIV infection.
- According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, most people living with HIV or at risk for HIV do not have access to prevention, care and treatment.
- A record 13 million people accessed antiretroviral treatment in 2013, according to WHO. Still, about 22 million other people living with HIV are not accessing treatment.
- In low- and middle-income countries, around 1 in 3 adults living with HIV had access to treatment.
- Only 1 in 4 children worldwide can get the medicines they needed, and many people with HIV still lack the means to prevent and treat other infections.
- The number of HIV-positive pregnant women receiving treatment has increased from 47 percent in 2010 to 67 percent in 2013.