07/23/2012 04:28 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2016

How Much Do You Know about HIV/AIDS?

In 1983, both Newsweek and TIME devoted cover stories to a new, strange, and deadly disease, with terrifying titles like "Epidemic" and "The AIDS Hysteria." In those awful days, nearly three decades ago, it seemed like AIDS was everywhere--the grimmest of reapers, waiting to strike, without hope of prevention or cure.

Then, in 1984, Dr. Robert Gallo and Dr. Luc Montagnier co-discovered HIV as the cause of the disease. And by the mid-1990s, exciting progress was being made on anti-retroviral therapies that kept the infection at bay.

More than 20,000 delegates from around the world have convened in Washington, D.C. to attend the 2012 International AIDS Conference--to celebrate progress, share scientific discoveries, and seize the potential to definitively "turn the tide" on AIDS.

It's a thrilling moment -- and yet, it's a moment of serious challenge as well: a challenge to all of us to make sure we stay aware, stay educated, and stay engaged, so that we can sustain the momentum and keep moving forward instead of back.

Did you know, for example, that in this country, African Americans are the racial group most affected by HIV? We make up 14% of the U.S. population, yet account for 44% of new HIV infections, with black men's estimated rate of infection more than six times that of white men, and black women's estimated rate 15 times the rate for white women. In Washington, D.C., which has epidemic rates of infection, black women account for nine of every 10 women with HIV. Nationwide, Hispanics and Latinos are also disproportionately affected. According to the CDC, at some point in life, 1 in 36 Latino men will be diagnosed with HIV.

Did you know that while there are estimated to be more than a million Americans living with HIV/AIDS, as many as one in five still aren't aware that they're infected? Understanding your status is critical to keeping yourself healthy, and to keeping your loved ones safe. A breakthrough study last year found that people with HIV placed on antiretrovirals early on in their infection were 96 percent less likely to pass HIV on to their partners. In other words, treatment is prevention; it can not only save one life, it can save many. Just a few weeks ago, the FDA approved an at-home rapid HIV test, OraQuick, making it possible to test in the privacy of your home. And Walgreens, in partnership with the CDC, is piloting a program to offer free HIV screening in selected pharmacies in Washington D.C., Chicago, and elsewhere. All it takes is a mouth swab. You'll get your results in 20 minutes.

Did you know that while men who have sex with men remain the most severely affected population in the United States, individuals infected through heterosexual contact accounted for 27% of estimated new HIV infections in 2009? Or that injection drug users represented 9% of new infections that same year? Programs that provide clean needles to drug users are some of the most effective ways to reduce rates of HIV infection among intravenous drug users, but conservative politicians have insisted on making federal funding of these programs illegal. This isn't just bad policy -- it's deadly policy, and we need to raise our voices against it.

Did you know there are more ways for individuals and couples to protect themselves? Female condoms are now available for sale at pharmacies around the country, giving women the option to practice safe sex without relying on their partners to use condoms. And just this week, the FDA approved for prescription a pill called Truvada, which is shown to be effective in preventing HIV among those at high risk of becoming infected.

Over the last 30 years, our understanding of AIDS has improved dramatically, bringing us to a point of unprecedented possibility and hope. Now is the time to build on that momentum, and end the epidemic for good. That's what the International AIDS Conference is about, but we all have a role to play. In order to "turn the tide together," we all must take responsibility--for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for our future.