Sunday, December 1st is known as World AIDS Day, but this year’s event feels a little different. The world is still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic with new cases rising across much of the world, but it’s still important to look back on the pandemics of the past.
Many have compared this year’s health crisis to the 1918 flu pandemic, but AIDS still exists in the world today. The event was designed to raise awareness regarding AIDS/HIV treatment and prevention, and there’s still more work to be done.
Increasing Access to Care
Thanks to new drugs like PrEP and increased HIV awareness, the annual number of new diagnoses continues to decrease around the U.S.
Statistics show that around 80% of those living with HIV here in the U.S. and throughout Western Europe receive antiretroviral therapy (ART) as treatment. ART reduces the amount of the virus in a person’s body, which allows them to live a long, healthy life. It also reduces the person’s chances of transmitting HIV to others.
However, UNAIDS reports that just 32% of people living with the virus in the Middle East and North Africa are accessing the treatment.
Last year, 38.0 million people around the globe were living with HIV. 1.7 million people became newly infected with the virus that causes AIDS in 2019, and 690,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses.
Living with HIV/AIDS means scheduling regular appointments with a healthcare provider, but unfortunately, many of those living with the virus do not have access to these services. Patients must visit their doctors regularly in order to receive ART medications. Without access to healthcare, far too many patients will die unnecessarily as a result of the disease.
Increasing HIV Prevention
The international healthcare community also needs to do more to prevent new HIV infections. Ever since PrEP, which stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis, went on the market back in 2012, it has proven to be remarkably effective at preventing new HIV infections. Studies have shown that PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by about 99% when taken daily. As for those who inject drugs, it reduces the risk of getting HIV by at least 74% when taken daily.
For many high-risk individuals, PrEP is an easy way to drastically limit their chances of contracting the virus. However, preventative medicines like it can be hard to come by in certain parts of the world. Without insurance, these medications can cost up to $13,000 per year.
Regions with high rates of new HIV/AIDS infections also need to figure out a way to deliver these drugs to high-risk patients. Countries across sub-Saharan Africa and beyond need to have a practical way of identifying high-risk populations and delivering the drug on a regular basis if they are going to reduce the rate of new infections. International health organizations like WHO will need to work with local healthcare providers to ensure high-risk populations have access to preventative medicine.
Educating Patients Around the World
Lastly, it’s also important for patients to be aware of their risk of getting HIV/AIDs and how they can protect themselves from contracting the virus. HIV rates tend to be higher among African Americans and Hispanics compared to Caucasians.
In the U.S., most cases of HIV are caused by male-to-male sexual contact. In 2018, gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with other men accounted for 69% of all new HIV diagnoses in the United States, while those who identify as heterosexual accounted for just 24% of all HIV diagnoses. The most affected subpopulation is African American gay and bisexual men.
In the U.S. and beyond, high-risk individuals and communities need to be aware of their risks. Healthcare providers in all areas need to convey important information about prevention and treatment to their patients. Reducing the rate of HIV/AIDS often comes down to public education.
Even though we are still dealing with the fallout caused by the deadly coronavirus, we still have a lot to do when it comes to defeating HIV/AIDS once and for all. Spread the word and keep the conversation going long after World AIDS Day.