Today, 1 December 2006, is World AIDS Day. The first case was documented twenty-five years ago, in 1981. Since then, 25 million people have died and 40 million people today are infected with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS). Worldwide, 11,000 people contract HIV every day. In the United States alone, over 1.1 million people are infected with HIV, and almost a quarter of them don’t know it. AIDS affects people of all races, genders, and sexualities. While sub-Saharan Africa is affected the most, AIDS is now a worldwide pandemic. At the very least, please take this day to educate yourself and others on HIV/AIDS and what you can do to protect yourself and others. HIV is preventable, but ignorance and prejudice hamper efforts to control the disease.
HIV (the human immunodeficiency virus) is the virus that causes AIDS. It is transmitted via bodily fluids such as blood, pre-ejaculate and semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. The most common ways that HIV is spread are through sexual intercourse, by sharing needles used to inject drugs, and from mother to child (during pregnancy, birth, or breast feeding).
AIDS (the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, sometimes called acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is a group of symptoms that occur after someone has been infected with HIV. HIV preferentially infects CD4+ cells, a type of white blood cell called a helper T cell. White blood cells are part of the body’s immune system: they help defend against infection. People with AIDS can have trouble fighting infections that normal immune systems easily control. They eventually die from these infections, though doctors and scientists have been able to develop treatments that allow AIDS patients to live near-normal lifespans—however, they must take several medications with significant side effects, and serious health problems may still occur.
AIDS is preventable, and the way to prevent it is to prevent yourself from being infected with HIV in the first place. Always use a condom during sexual intercourse. Birth control pills and other contraceptives cannot prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and have no effect on HIV. Don’t share needles. If you use injection drugs, learn about needle exchange programs in your area, and use a clean needle each time. If you have HIV and are pregnant, make sure you talk to your doctor about how to minimize the risk to your baby.
Remember, it’s your responsibility to educate (and protect) yourself and others. What have you done to help?
- “World AIDS Day marks 25 years of HIV” at New Scientist
- Spotlight: World AIDS Day 2006 at the United States Centers for Disease Control
- World AIDS Day (UK-based)
- UNAIDS: The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS