World AIDS Day

Author: Clayton Bell

Since 1988, December 1st has been designated as World AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) Day, the first-ever global health day. It is a day to remember those lost to complications of AIDS. It is a day to show support to those living with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), the virus that is transmitted between people that can lead to AIDS. It is a day to remind all of us that the battle against AIDS is still being fought. World AIDS Day is also a day to learn how the pandemic began, how it is transmitted and treated, and how we fight back. 

HIV is believed to have jumped to humans from chimpanzees in the late 1800s in central Africa. The virus slowly spread across the globe, reaching the United States in the mid to late 1970s. The first medical report of what would later be called AIDS appeared in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on June 5, 1981. After sending an investigative team to research, the Center for Disease Control published recommendations for the prevention of transmission in March of 1983.

Since the early 1980s, we have learned much about HIV and AIDS. HIV is an incurable retrovirus that attacks the immune system, which protects the body of an infected person. If left untreated, the virus can take over causing the immune system to become ineffective. When this occurs, an AIDS diagnosis may be given. At this point, any opportunistic infection can come in and spread easily throughout the body and do enough damage to kill the person. 

The virus can be found in five body fluids of an infected person; semen, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids, breast milk, and blood. If someone comes into contact with any of these infected fluids, whether through broken skin or mucous membranes, the virus can be transmitted. As most of those fluids are typically associated with sexual contact, HIV is considered a sexually transmitted disease/infection (STD/STI).

However, the virus can be transmitted through non-sexual ways as well. When infected blood is shared, there is a high risk of the virus being transmitted. Sharing needles is the most common non-sexual way HIV is passed. Examples of this include intravenous drug use, tattooing, and body piercing. An infected pregnant person can also transmit HIV to their unborn child, during pregnancy or birth. As HIV lives in breast milk, the virus can also be transmitted after the child is born, if breastfeeding with infected breast milk occurs.

The impact of the AIDS pandemic is devastating. It is believed that more than 35 million people have died due to complications of AIDS since the pandemic began. Worldwide, it is estimated that there are currently more than 38 million people living with HIV. The number of people dying of complications of AIDS is going down, while the number of people getting infected with HIV continues to rise. This is a result of the advancements healthcare professionals have made in treating the virus. 

Because it takes a high level of HIV in the body to progress to AIDS, medical treatment includes antiretroviral therapy (ART) that reduces the viral load. The FDA has approved more than 30 different types of medicines to treat HIV infections. A person’s particular combination of these medicines, or treatment regimen, depends on their individual needs. 

The ability of ART to suppress the virus has come a long way since the first effective treatments were released in the mid to late 1990s. It is now possible for ART to suppress the virus to the point where it becomes undetectable on a standard lab test. While still considered HIV-positive, someone with an undetectable viral level can live a long and healthy life. Another benefit of this very low viral level is that the likelihood of that person transmitting the virus to someone else becomes very low as well.

Preventing transmission comes down to keeping a non-infected person away from those five body fluids of an infected person. External and internal condoms, as well as dental dams, help reduce the risk of HIV being transmitted sexually by creating a barrier between the partners that limit the exchange of body fluids. No other form of birth control reduces the risk of HIV transmission

Non-sexually, HIV transmission can be prevented by not sharing needles. This is why there are so many campaigns across the country aimed at reducing the sharing of needles for intravenous drug users. This is also why there are such strict guidelines and rules that tattoo and piercing businesses must follow. 

Some medicines can be given to an HIV-negative person to help reduce the risk of transmission as well. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is given to HIV-negative people who are at high risk for contracting HIV, whether it be through sex or injection drug use. PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV through sex by 99% and is over 74% effective for drug users, when taken as prescribed.

Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is a short course of HIV medicines taken very soon after exposure to HIV to prevent the virus from taking hold in the body. PEP must be started within 72 hours after a possible exposure to HIV or it won’t work. While PrEP can be taken long-term for someone who lives a high-risk lifestyle, PEP should only be used in an emergency.

HIV-positive people who wish to become pregnant should be on ART before the possibility of pregnancy occurs and they should take advantage of support services during delivery and birth to greatly reduce the risk of transmission to the new baby. Also, the baby should be fed formula, as opposed to breast milk, to further reduce the risk of transmission.

Otherwise, as long as those particular body fluids aren’t involved, there is no risk of transmitting HIV. Any sort of casual contact with an infected person has no risk of transmitting HIV. Casual contact includes anything from hugging to sharing combs or makeup to sharing food and drinks, among other things. The virus dies shortly after leaving the body, so there is no risk of transmission from places like toilet seats.

The myths and stigma surrounding the AIDS pandemic and HIV continue to permeate society, feeding the rise of new infections. Educating the population on the truths about HIV and AIDS is the only way we can hope to begin to see the numbers of new cases decline. Many resources and organizations are out there spreading information to those who may be at risk. But it is especially necessary to teach young people before they become sexually active.

If you want to know more about how you can help end the AIDS pandemic, there are many ways to get involved. Educate yourself and your friends and family with information from credible sources. Donate time and/or money to any of the dozens of organizations, both local and national, that have dedicated themselves to bringing awareness to and fighting HIV and the AIDS pandemic. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It will take the whole world to end this global pandemic. This is exactly what World AIDS Day is all about.

For more information on World AIDS Day, please visit