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Bruce Severino: HIV not the certain death sentence it once was

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On Dec. 1, we will observe World AIDS Day around the globe and here in Charleston.

Many years ago, a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS was a death sentence. Not now. People who are diagnosed with this disease can live full lives, if they can afford the medications.

Prior to the protease inhibitors, almost everyone died, including my partner, Rob Cervi. Only a few months before his passing, the protease inhibitors were approved, too late for him and for many of my close friends.

Lots of people don't know the human immunodeficiency virus infection or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) is a disease of the human immune system caused by a virus. During the initial infection, a person may experience a brief period of influenza-like illness. This is typically followed by a prolonged period without symptoms. As the illness progresses it increasingly interferes with the immune system, making people much more likely to get infections and tumors that do not usually affect people with working immune systems.

HIV is transmitted primarily via unprotected sexual intercourse (including anal and even oral sex), contaminated blood transfusions and hypodermic needles and from mother to child during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding. Some bodily fluids, such as saliva and tears, do not transmit HIV. Prevention of HIV infection, primarily through safe sex and needle-exchange programs, is a key strategy to control the spread of the disease. There is no cure or vaccine; however, antiretroviral treatment can slow the course of the disease and may lead to a near-normal life expectancy. While antiretroviral treatment reduces the risk of death and complications from the disease, these medications are expensive and may be associated with side effects.

Genetic research indicates that HIV originated in west-central Africa during the early 20th century. AIDS was first recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1981. The virus was identified in the early part of the decade. Since its discovery, AIDS has caused nearly 30 million deaths (as of 2009). As of 2010, approximately 34 million people have contracted HIV globally. AIDS is considered a pandemic -- a disease outbreak present over a large area and is actively spreading.

HIV/AIDS has had a great impact on society, both as an illness and as a source of discrimination. The disease also has significant economic impacts. There are many misconceptions about HIV/AIDS such as the belief that it can be transmitted by casual non-sexual contact. The disease has also become subject to many controversies involving organized religion.

But there is good news. The global rate of HIV infection and the number of AIDS-related deaths have been dramatically reduced, thanks to expanding access to treatment, the United Nations said in a report this year.

In its annual update on HIV, which it said now infects around 35.3 million people worldwide, UNAIDS said deaths from AIDS and HIV infection rates were falling, while the number of people getting treatment is going up.

AIDS-related deaths in 2012 fell to 1.6 million, down from 1.7 million in 2011 and a peak of 2.3 million in 2005. And the number of newly infected people dropped to 2.3 million in 2012, down from 2.5 million in 2011.

By the end of 2012, some 9.7 million people in poorer and middle-income countries had access to the antiretroviral treatment that keeps AIDS in check. That's an increase of nearly 20 percent in a year.

Since 2001, the U.N. report said, there has been a 33 percent reduction in newly infected individuals, and a 52 percent drop in annual new infections among children. About half of people who acquire HIV become infected before they turn 25, and AIDS is the second most common cause of death among 20-24 year olds.

Each year, about 50,000 people get infected with HIV in the United States. Getting an HIV test is the first step to finding out if you have the virus and getting medical care. Without medical care, HIV leads to AIDS and early death.

Several activities are planned in Charleston for our observance:

* On Friday, Nov. 29, four panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt will be on view at the Good News Mountaineer Gallery from 4 to 8 p.m. during the Black Friday Downtown Artwalk. These panels were brought to Charleston by the Straight and Gay Alliance from St. John's Episcopal Church. One of the panels will feature the Rev. Thomas Dodd, one of my closest friends.

* On Sunday, Dec. 1, at 9 a.m., Dan Connery will conduct YogAID at Covenant House, a special yoga practice, honoring those who live with HIV/AIDS.

* Free HIV Rapid Testing will be available on Dec. 2, from 2 to 8 p.m. at Asbury Methodist Church.

I invite you to join us as we observe World AIDS Day on Dec. 1. At 6 p.m. we will begin our observance at Asbury Methodist Church where Jay Adams will be presented with the Red Ribbon Award. Following the presentation, we will have a candlelit procession to the Garden. The Charleston Gay Men's Chorale will perform at both venues.

Severino, of Charleston, is a founding member of the Pride Committee and co-founder of the Living AIDS Memorial Garden Inc.  



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