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30 Years of HIV/AIDS: How Many More?

Posted: 06/02/11 03:24 PM ET

This month, we mark the 30th year of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. On June 5, 1981 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)'s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published the first mention of what later is determined to be HIV. During the decade that followed, we stood on a precipice of doom.

More and more people were presenting with the disease, and soon after were dying painful and horrifying deaths. Doctors felt helpless, people were terrified and the public was panicking. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome was the clinical term used to describe the sudden cases of Kaposi's sarcoma or pneumonia infection in previously healthy people. But AIDS became the loaded term that struck fear into the hearts of humanity.

We certainly have come a long way since that June day, 30 years ago. The discovery of the virus that causes AIDS, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) -- as well as the ways it is transmitted and the way it could be diagnosed -- helped propel us forward with the knowledge of how to prevent the spread of the virus and ultimately, how to treat it.

The discovery of antiretroviral (ARV) therapy and subsequent advances in that treatment helped shift the course of the disease, plummeting the number of AIDS-related deaths, saving countless lives and shifting HIV/AIDS from being a deadly disease to a chronic condition.

But make no mistake -- despite numerous advances, HIV/AIDS is not over. Every nine and a half minutes, someone in the United States becomes infected with the virus. More than one million people are living with HIV in the United States. One in five of those people living with HIV is unaware of his or her infection. And while the annual number of new HIV infections remains stable, the infection rate is still far too high, with an estimated 56,300 Americans becoming infected with HIV each year.

HIV/AIDS continues to disproportionately affect our nation's most vulnerable populations: Communities of color (especially African-Americans), men who have sex with men (MSM), women and low-income, poor and homeless individuals. The epidemic continues to be driven by stigma, which has a significant (negative) impact on prevention and treatment efforts in those communities hardest hit by it. More than 640,000 people living with HIV -- many of whom know their status -- are not in the care of an HIV-specializing medical provider.

In the last year alone leading up to this 30th anniversary, we've experienced both great hope and maddening frustration in our efforts to fight the epidemic. The ban was lifted on the use of federal funds for syringe exchange programs, which have been proven to reduce transmission of HIV and other blood borne illnesses. The White House released the first-ever National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS), which has given us the blueprint for a focused and coordinated response to America's HIV/AIDS epidemic. We've learned of promising new findings on vaccine research, microbicides and ARV treatment as prevention.

But we also have witnessed the explosion of waiting lists of people who need their life-saving HIV medications from state AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAP). We've had to fight against draconian budget cuts to critical federal HIV/AIDS programs in the 2011 federal budget and are facing even bigger budget battles for 2012.

This is no time to give up! In fact, observing the 30th anniversary of AIDS can inspire us to work even harder to ensure that there are as few of these anniversaries left as possible. We all have an important role to play!

As individuals, we must educate ourselves about HIV/AIDS. We must know our HIV status and get tested. We must practice safer sex. We must learn about local, state and federal public policies and programs that promote the health and well-being of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. We must communicate with our lawmakers and let them know that critical HIV/AIDS services are in need of further funding.

As HIV/AIDS organizations, we must develop innovative ways to reach those who need us the most. We must cultivate strategic collaborations with one another that help make our work more effective and efficient. We must advocate for sound HIV/AIDS policy, for increased federal and state resources, and for full implementation of the Affordable Care Act. We must fight for effective vaccines, microbicides and other promising prevention tools.

As private sector companies and philanthropists, we must increase investments in both innovation and evidence-based programs that support community-driven responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

As Americans we must remember that HIV/AIDS is a preventable disease and a winnable battle! We must work together to create a new anniversary that will be cause for real celebration: the end of AIDS in America.