Tuesday, December 1, 2015

World AIDS Day 2015: Did you even notice?

December 1st is World AIDS Day. It has been for decades, and will continue to be for decades to come. Yet, did you even notice?

Years ago, I was venting to my dad about how I wish people used social media for intelligent conversation and to spread important information instead of posting pictures of their outfits and arguing over inaccurate news stories. He looked at me and said "make Facebook what you want it to be", suggesting that I ignore all my boring acquaintances and follow organizations that I believe in, instead. So that's what I did. Twitter, Facebook, and eventually Instagram. I follow government organizations relating to public and global health, nonprofit organizations, scientists, museums, etc.

But, today, I found myself frustrated again. I was looking forward to seeing posts about World AIDS Day, but I saw TWO posts on facebook, and only FIVE quick tweets (80% of which were from US government organizations like Health & Human Services or the CDC).

So, why don't we care about HIV and AIDS anymore? Why has HIV and AIDS turned into a docile disease?

I have a few theories about this:

1. We're inundated with articles about how "A CURE IS RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER" or about "ONE MAN: CURED OF AIDS".
 Don't get me wrong, I have complete faith in the scientific research community and the medical community, but I'm tired of things being announced or declared in a way that isn't really all that true. We are already in an age where there is a huge distrust of science, so when breakthroughs are made, results are expected immediately. When we talk about "curing AIDS", I imagine the general masses imaging taking a huge red marker and checking a box. But, we've seen with every drug trial (I'm especially thinking of cancer drugs and the public outcry as a result of some of the waiting periods), results aren't immediate. We don't go from test tube to mass production of a perfectly effective drug. Even with animal trials, many times there are unforeseen side effects or changes in dosage efficacy.

Not to mention, the "curing" or "clearing"  of HIV has not had a lasting effect. The incredibly invasive, extensive, and expensive procedures that lead to the initial news stories are simply not feasible for everyone (and even most people!). But the realistic side of the story is often not included.

I don't say this in any way to minimize the great advancements we've seen with antiviral treatments. We are in an age where many people who are infected with HIV are living long, healthy lives as a result of treatment options and lifestyle changes.

2. HIV isn't as scary as other emergent diseases and infections.
How can we take HIV seriously as an ongoing threat if we hear about something new, unknown, and terrifying every week? There are many factors that go into viruses breaking out of a small region and spreading to previously unaffected areas. But, we are in an age of emergent diseases. Ebola has been around for decades, but up until last year, most people had never heard of it. Zika virus was isolated in specific regions of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, and suddenly, this year, more than 14,000 people have been infected in Salvador, Brazil. Kissing bugs are in 26 states, and Aedes mosquitoes have been moving in to California for a few years now. Chikungunya is in the Caribbean and certain parts of Europe.

With scientific distrust, comes fear. Everyone is too busy fearing new viruses to remember that HIV is still here.

TEM micrograph of budding HIV virions

3. Young generations haven't experienced death from HIV and AIDS. Young generations haven't experienced the disease revolution.
The largest recorded ebola outbreak in human history happened (is still happening, albeit slower) happened in an area of the world with which most people are still not familiar. The cases that caught the most media attention were Americans that received experimental treatment.

Younger generations aren't familiar with the fear and death associated with HIV in the 80s and 90s. They aren't familiar with the imagery of that time. They aren't familiar with the huge and devastating number of children that have HIV.

This lack of realistic knowledge and awareness of HIV and AIDS has lead to incredibly sad facts, such as: 60% of HIV positive youths are not aware of their HIV status.

Speaking of statistics, its estimated that 34 million people worldwide are living with HIV.
I recently attended the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) annual conference, and I collected some really devastating statistics. As of 2013, it was estimated that 3.2 million children were living with HIV worldwide, and less than 25% of them were receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART). That was almost 3 years ago.

With the bleak statistics of the number of people living with HIV who don't know their status and the number of children with HIV, we are not in the position to say that HIV is not a threat, or that "we can see the end of AIDS by 2030". If we aren't even acknowledging World AIDS Day anymore, then how can we see a future without HIV and AIDS?

Take this matter into your own hands. Get tested regularly.

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