World AIDS Day’s goals remain vitally important

Has today’s observance of World AIDS Day outlived its usefulness? Many might instinctively argue yes.

After all, what with new antiretro- viral drugs that no longer make acquired immune deficiency syndrome an automatic death sentence for its sufferers and with public health focusing more heavily on other health crises – most notably the opiate epidemic – many in our community and our world may be lulled into a false sense of security that the battle against HIV/AIDS has been won.

Cold, hard data, however, prove otherwise. Indeed World AIDS Day, first observed on the first day of December in 1988, remains a vitally important tool locally, nationally and internationally to raise awareness of the ongoing epidemic and to lessen its still unacceptably high incidence.

The World Health Organization says 37 million people continue to be infected with the human immunodeficiency virus or full-blown AIDS, 18.2 million of whom are receiving life-saving treatment. In the United States, 1.2 million people are living with HIV infection, including an estimated 161,200 whose infections have not been diagnosed, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year alone, 160,000 Americans received an AIDS diagnosis for the first time.

Here in the Mahoning Valley, about 750 people live with HIV or AIDS, according to the Ohio Department of Health’s AIDS Surveillance Unit’s 2016 report. Grimly, it also shows rates of infection have plateaued or are actually increasing. In Mahoning and Trumbull counties, the number of people living with HIV/AIDS rose 14 percent between 2013 and the end of 2016, according to ODH data.

To be sure, the war on AIDS is far from over. Yet in the shadow of today’s World AIDS Day observances, hopeful signs emerge on several fronts.

One tablet regimen

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for example, just last week approved Juluca, the first complete treatment regimen in one tablet that contains two drugs to treat individuals infected with HIV-1, compared with the standard HIV treatment that consists of a cocktail of many drugs.

Internationally, the most promising development in recent years has come from South Africa, where scientists are testing a beefed-up version of a vaccine that some hope will pound the final nail in the coffin of HIV/AIDS.

In the political arena in the United States, however, danger signs loom. A Kaiser Family Foundation report shows that a proposed $800 million cut to HIV/AIDS programs, including the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief launched by President George W. Bush in 2003, and $225 million cut to the multilateral Global Fund, could result in nearly 300,000 deaths and more than 1.75 million new infections each year.

Those misguided proposals would end a long and proud tradition of the past several U.S. presidential administrations of investing needed resources into fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic nationally and globally. Fortunately, the Republican-controlled Congress has resisted such heartless threats to this nation’s responsible response to the epidemic.

Locally, efforts to assist patients and spread awareness must continue unabated as well. While public funding for local and state AIDS task forces has dried up in recent years, private-sector groups have taken up the gauntlet. Prime among them have been the tireless efforts of the Ursuline Sisters HIV/AIDS Ministry that has assisted and empowered hundreds of adults and children touched by the disease.

Physicians, too, must continue to take an active role in AIDS prevention. The CDC report notes that people unaware of their HIV infection account for approximately 40 percent of on- going transmissions in the United States. That’s why we join the agency in actively urging physicians to include HIV testing in their regimen of annual physical examinations of adults 18 to 64 years old.

But as we have witnessed over the past three decades of World AIDS Day observances, staunching the spread of HIV/AIDS has been and continues to be a slow and costly process. But with hopeful signs on the horizon, this is no time to abandon hope or to remove the epidemic from our collective consciousness.

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