A mixture of good news and bad news greets today’s milestone 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day.
Across the nation and around the world, infection rates have dropped by a dramatic 50 percent since the heyday of the pandemic in the late 1980s and 1990s thanks to a coordinated global offensive against the infectious disease.
In the Mahoning Valley, the compassionate Ursuline Sisters/HIV-AIDS Ministry has reached a milestone of its own this year, turning 25 with a proud record of accomplishment in comprehensively serving the needs of thousands of people in our region who have lived with the human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immune deficiency syndrome over the past 2 Ω decades.
Yet, in spite of such progress, the pandemic continues to infect and kill hundreds of people on a daily basis. Clearly, this is no time for either celebration or complacency.
The World Health Organization says 37 million people continue to live 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, 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 documented HIV or AIDS, according to the Ohio Department of Health’s AIDS Surveillance Unit’s 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.
HOPEFUL SIGNS TOWARD CURE
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.
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, new clinical immunotherapies and gene therapies are showing promise toward a cure for HIV within the next decade.
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 former 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 so far 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.
A recent report from the local AIDS ministry underscores its impact in responding to the physical, mental and spiritual needs of those living with AIDS among us. It notes:
1,000-plus meals are served annually at The Ursuline Sisters Caf .
2,000-plus bags of groceries, household supplies and personal items are distributed yearly through Angela’s Place.
800 people receive HIV testing through the ministry’s outreach annually.
About 350 patients of all ages are treated annually through its clinic.
Clearly, the Mahoning Valley has indeed been fortunate to have the energy and grace of the Ursuline Sisters on the front lines of the HIV battle since 1993. Unfortunately, our community likely will rely on its continued compassion at least for the short term.
After all, as we have witnessed over the past three decades of World AIDS Day observances, stanching 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.