On World AIDS Day, a sense of hope

December 1, 2016 Providence Health Team

Around the world, people are lighting candles, sharing awareness campaigns and being tested in various observances of World AIDS Day 2016. While AIDS remains a deadly disease without a cure, much of the gloom surrounding the illness has lifted.

Health officials are especially hopeful about a clinical trial in South Africa of a new vaccine that some say could be the “final nail in the coffin” of HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus.

Said Anthony Fauci, M.D, who heads the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: “Even a moderately effective vaccine would significantly decrease the burden of HIV disease over time in countries and populations with high rates of HIV infection, such as South Africa.”

Results from the South African trial, funded by NIAID, the U.S. military, the South African Medical Research Council and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are expected in 2020.

A generation of people has grown up in the shadow of HIV, a virus that weakens the body’s immune system and makes it easier for cancers and other diseases to attack. Thirty-five years after the first cases were diagnosed, scientists and health officials hope they are close to treatments that can bring the deadly epidemic to an end.

In a statement touting promising developments in the fight to eradicate AIDS, officials at the National Institutes of Health said the global advances “bring hope on this World AIDS Day that an end to the HIV/AIDS pandemic is achievable.”

Promising developments

The NIH cited progress on these anti-AIDS initiatives:

  • Development of treatments that suppress the virus and prolong lives
    • Specifically, a person with HIV who is receiving antiretroviral therapy can live a nearly normal lifespan.
  • The growing use of preventive measures, including a pill intended to ward off infection
    • The promising trial of the HIV vaccine in South Africa
  • Strides to prevent transmission of HIV from mother to infant during pregnancy and breastfeeding
  • Continuing trials testing the effectiveness of antibody therapies

A deadly scourge

A diagnosis of HIV infection used to be a death sentence. Initially, HIV/AIDS was regarded as a disease that primarily affected gay people. But its spread has affected people of all orientations, ages and geographic diversity.

Some global statistics, as of the end of 2015:

  • AIDS-related illnesses have killed an estimated 35 million people since the start of the epidemic.
  • About 78 million have become infected with HIV since the start of the epidemic.
  • About 36.7 million people are living with HIV.
  • About 2.1 million people became infected with HIV in 2015.
  • About 18.2 million people were undergoing antiretroviral therapy.

Statistics also reveal some of the reasons for hope:

  • Infections among children have declined by 50 percent since 2010.
  • The number of people with HIV who are receiving antiretroviral therapy has grown steadily over the last six years.
  • The number of AIDS-related deaths has fallen by 45 percent since the peak in 2005.

Diagnosing HIV

In an effort to reduce the number of people who are unaware they are infected by HIV, the World Health Organization recently issued a new set of guidelines about self-testing. As many as 14 million people don’t know they are HIV-positive, WHO said.

WHO’s guidelines call for people to use their oral fluid or a pinprick of blood to test for the presence of the virus.

In North America and Europe, the stigma around an HIV diagnosis has largely evaporated. Talk to your health care provider about ways to prevent the transmission of the virus, about antiretroviral drugs or about living with HIV. You can find a Providence provider here.

For deeper understanding

You can read about AIDS, including links to providers and supportive organizations, in the Providence Health Library.

Many of the statistics above are drawn from the United Nations’ AIDS Fact Sheet.

World AIDS Day has a website, with resources ranging from statistics to an events calendar.

Read the National Institutes of Health statement on World AIDS Day.

Read the World Health Organization’s new guidance on self-testing.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers links to a wide array of AIDS-related information, including clinical trials, policy and law, guidelines for providers, risk factors and testing.

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