HIV/AIDS: Act up!

Have You Ever?

Kaya recently tested HIV-positive - she contracted HIV from her pregnant mother when she was still a baby. Right now, Kaya and her mother have access to the drugs they need, but the family isn't sure how long they'll be able to afford them. Kaya is scared: she doesn’t know how to help or what would happen if she couldn’t take her medication. 

Here’s Why

There is still widespread fear and stigma attached to HIV, stemming from both a lack of knowledge and a fear passed on from those who lived through an HIV/AIDS epidemic in the US. But today, HIV-positive people can live a long, healthy, and sexually active life. However, there is still a global epidemic of HIV/AIDS because the testing and treatment we have in the US is not globally available and accepted. 

Definition of HIV/AIDS

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) attacks the cells of the immune system, which protects the body from infection. HIV travels through bodily fluids and can be transmitted through unprotected sex, blood transfusions, the sharing of contaminated surgical equipment, pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. If left untreated, HIV can develop into acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

AIDS refers to the most advanced stages of an HIV infection. The immune system is too weak to fight off “opportunistic infections” that take advantage of it. The global HIV/AIDS epidemic has led to a resurgence of Tuberculosis, or TB, which is the leading cause of death of HIV-positive people worldwide. 

There is no cure for HIV or AIDS. However, it can be prevented through condom use, testing and counseling, and voluntary medical male circumcision. The virus can also be treated with antiretroviral drugs that strengthen the immune system so individuals don’t progress to AIDS. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) allows HIV-positive people to live long and healthy lives. 

The populations that are especially vulnerable to HIV/AIDS are poor and marginalized populations and those lacking education about safe sex practices. In particular, this includes children, sex workers, injection drug users, transgender people, and refugees. However, anyone could get infected.

The History

While the earliest case of HIV was found in a blood sample of a man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it’s widely agreed that the virus was spread from chimpanzees to humans, probably through the hunting and trading of bush meat. It wasn’t until 1981 that the first HIV transmission was recorded: five gay men in Los Angeles had all contracted a rare form of lung infection. The epidemic in the United States spread among gay or bisexual men and intravenous drug users in large cities in New York and California. Soon, cases started popping up all around the world. In 1982, the Centers for Disease Control renamed the virus AIDS. 

President Reagan’s administration failed to take the emerging epidemic seriously in the early ‘80s despite its severity and speed. Little was known about HIV/AIDS, stemming from a lack of initiative to cover it in the media, political policies, and scientific spheres. This gap was caused by and perpetuated stigmas around the two populations in which transmission was occurring. The gay community faced severe discrimination during this time, and drug use was widely scorned following the government’s crackdown on drugs starting the previous decade. The inaction from public leaders led to the creation of activist organizations like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP. These organizations advocated for HIV-positive people, protested the lack of funding for AIDS research, and spread awareness about the issue and information about safe sex. These activist groups were also instrumental in the early testing and research of possible treatments. In the decades following, governmental and scientific organizations began to invest more in research and support about HIV/AIDS. However, the delay in testing and treatment they caused led to countless preventable infections and deaths. 

Why Care? 

HIV/AIDS spread globally through the movements of the increasing world economy. While the epidemic eventually ended in the United States, HIV is still a significant global public health issue today. 

HIV transmission continues, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, followed by Western and Central Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. The epicenter of the global epidemic is Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that includes some of the poorest nations in the world. Testing and treatment are not widespread, making it difficult for those infected to receive help. Stigma, both around HIV-positive individuals and the populations most vulnerable to infection, is a major barrier to treatment. 

The HIV/AIDS epidemic has drastically impeded the economic growth and social development of these nations. Armed conflicts and climate-change-induced natural disasters disproportionately occur in Africa. These create refugee and internationally displaced populations as well as increasing the risk of violence to women and girls, all of whom are especially vulnerable to infection. Events like these can also directly threaten the healthcare, government, water, and sanitation infrastructure, undermining the nations’ ability to protect citizens from violence and disease.

Even though the United States is not facing an HIV/AIDS epidemic, many nations are, and those suffering are the most vulnerable and the least able to stand up for themselves. You can help by supporting organizations like the Treatment Action Campaign and the RUSH foundation that work to provide HIV prevention and treatment and support HIV-positive people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Think Further

  1. In what ways do you think the global HIV/AIDS epidemic has lessened the productivity and economic growth of the affected countries?
  2. How do you think stigma has perpetuated and exacerbated this epidemic since its beginning?
  3. Do you think wealthy countries that have controlled HIV transmission should provide aid to the epicenters of the epidemic? If so, what could they do? Do you think they could make the issues worse?

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  1. World Health Organization. “HIV/AIDS.” Geneva: World Health Organization.  https://www.who.int/health-topics/hiv-aids/#tab=tab_1
  2. Pisani, Elizabeth. “Sex, drugs and HIV—let’s get rational.” Ted, Ted, 2010. https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_pisani_sex_drugs_and_hiv_let_s_get_rational/transcript?language=en
  3. Engel, Jonathon. “The Epidemic: A Global History of AIDS.” HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.